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How Scared Should I Be?

How Scared Should I Be of Terrorism?

If we all get super scared of the Islamic State, can we make it go away?
Image via Wikimedia Commons / Steven Lek

In the column "How Scared Should I Be?" VICE staff writer and generalized anxiety disorder sufferer Mike Pearl seeks to quantify the scariness of the world he lives in. We hope it helps you to more wisely allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.

On Tuesday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a horrifying terrorist attack in Belgium that killed 34 and wounded hundreds, prompting world leaders to attach promises of action against Islamic extremism to their immediate statements of grief and solidarity with the Belgian people.


At times like this, my id sometimes takes over. I feel a whole lot better when the scary cable news coverage of death and chaos morphs into people talking about revenge. Just after 9/11, for instance, I used to wear a sweatshirt with the heavily-armed characters from Platoon on it, and the phrase "Search and Destroy," under which I had scribbled the name "Osama Bin Laden." It's embarrassing now, but when I was 17 the thought of revenge made me feel less scared.

But teens, and the general public, shouldn't worry too much about terrorists, according to military analyst and author Brian Michael Jenkins. Jenkins is a senior advisor specializing in terrorism for the RAND Corporation, a non-partisan policy think tank headquartered in Santa Monica, California. Militaries, and military advisors, he told me, are the ones who should be concerned with how to deal with terrorists. "That's our job. That's the government's job. Your job is to not worry that much."

In his remarks after the attacks on Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz echoed this sentiment. "For years, the west has tried to deny this enemy exists out of a combination of political correctness and fear," Cruz said, adding, "We can no longer afford either." Cruz long ago made it clear that he wants to ice all the terrorists in cold blood like The Terminator. And obviously it's in some people's job descriptions to operate with zero fear—Seal Team 6, for instance. But as a member of the general public, it's hard to live in a world with terrorists and not feel even a little bit scared of them.


Policy research into terrorism often carries unsettling headlines like "Reducing Terrorism Risk at Shopping Centers: An Analysis of Potential Security Options." But the fact that experts have had a nice long look at mall security doesn't mean our shopping centers are in immediate jeopardy. "The focus is how we can improve security to try to do certain things to prevent an attack," Jenkins said. "[Governments] have to be worried about an attack taking place within their jurisdiction, and in the case of the Department of Homeland Security, taking place in the United States."

But that's not how he talks to individuals who often seem on the verge of panic. His message for people like me is simple: "Take a deep breath."

In the coming days, there will be paranoia. "People are going to see more suspicious devices, yes, because everyone is apprehensive," Jenkins said. The overall level of fear, he explained, will be exacerbated by an increase in the rate of malicious pranks and possible bomb threats, the beefing up of security at airports and a larger police presence around public transportation. "Those are precautionary measures," Jenkins said. "It doesn't mean that someone has some secret information that you don't have."

But let's get down to brass tacks: How likely am I to get blown up by a terrorist while waiting in line for a movie ticket at The Grove? According to the New America Foundation, 103 Americans have been killed by terrorism since 9/11. Over a comparable period of time, 2000 through 2010, approximately 108 Americans died by having TVs fall on them, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. And at 72 fatalities, domestic mass shootings in 2016 alone have killed more Americans than terrorism has in the past 15 years, according to the VICE Mass Shooting Tracker.


"We're talking about something that is close to lottery odds," Jenkins said. "I buy lottery tickets and imagine what I would do with all that money, but I don't plan my financial future around the presumption I'm going to win."

But there are aspects to terrorism that are worth being afraid of aside from bodily harm.

According to Farris Tuma, program chief in charge of traumatic stress at the National Institute of Mental Health, "Terrorism related anxiety and depression can affect—at least initially—large numbers of people at once and thus raise important challenges for the health care system." Part of his program's funding, he told VICE in an email, goes into the ongoing study of the effect that terrorism-related trauma has on public health.

Also, the political future is uncertain, and terrorism is part of what makes it scary. If you fear the Islamic State, for instance, according to Jenkins, the world won't be saved by pushing it out of the region it controls. Even if President Trump's vast military operation were able to end the Islamic State's occupation of Raqqa, Mosul, and Fallujah, "The Islamic State fighters will shave their beards and go underground and stay in Iraq to continue their struggle," Jenkins said.

"The greatest danger is that terrorism does work in a sense that it provokes fear and alarm. That's what terrorism is all about," according to Jenkins. In other words, roll your eyes all you want, it looks like "fear itself" is the scariest thing about terrorism. Fear, he explained, "can lead us to do things that truly are counterproductive and corrosive of our own democracy. That's the danger."


So while news stories about law enforcement stopping terrorist plots might give us the pleasant impression that the government is catching terrorists left and right before they can hurt us, there might be something scary underlying those stories: a crackdown on our civil rights. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found evidence of rights violations in 30 percent of the terrorism busts it studied.

But it's worth noting that the old adage "If you see something, say something," isn't an altogether bad slogan. In a great example of paranoia turning out to be useful, an anonymous tip four months ago stopped a man in Richmond, California who was accused of creating a stockpile of bombs.

That alleged would-be terrorist, Richard Celli, was a Trump supporter, and his plan, police said, was to blow up Muslims.

Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Terrorism?

2/5: Taking Normal Precautions

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.