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Don’t Feed The Fear

Three dead. 264 injured. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev turned the 117th Boston Marathon into a nightmare. A day dedicated to celebrating the world’s oldest marathon was turned into a day full of horror and heartbreak in the span of 12 seconds. The brothers stashed pressure cookers into backpacks and deposited them alongside the marathon. In the days and months that followed, Americans experienced anger, mournfulness, unease and everything in between. In the moments of knee-jerk reactions these powerful emotions are only natural, but are Americans’ responses to terrorism, in general, an overreaction? Who or what sparks this overblown fear?

Let’s begin by establishing that the threat of terrorism is real. Even with heightened security since 9/11 and government spending of $2 million dollars in order to better equip America for terrorism, there have still been 37 attacks on American soil since 2001. But when we take a step back it is clear that our fear is disproportionate to the danger that terrorism presents. Even, “if ‘another 9/11‘ were to happen every three months for the next five years, the chances of being killed in one of them is 0.02 percent.” One model even suggests that the lifetime probability of you dying at the hands of an international terrorists is one in 80,000 which is about the same likelihood of you dying from the impact of a comet hitting Earth. Based on Americans’ reactions, you would think that the odds were a lot higher.

Seeing Americans’ excessive reaction terrorism leads us to wonder from where their responses come. Politicians and the media, along with others, benefit from this inflated fear. After an attack politicians seize the opportunity to make brave declarations about how they will not let terrorism break America. In August of 2000 George Bush’s approval rating was roughly 55%. In the aftermath of 9/11 he gave a speech condemning the terrorists for attacking the U.S. and mounting an effort to stop international terrorism. After this speech, his approval rating shot up to 90%. The government has fostered this fear for their benefit. For example, take a look at the first page of the defining manifesto of The Department of Homeland Security, which states, “Today’s terrorist can strike at any place, at any time and with virtually any weapon.” This exaggerates the threat that is present. In addition, an example of policy that has fed this fear is the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), an immigration program implemented in the aftermath of 9/11 that collects information, fingerprints and pictures of non-citizens in order to keep track of them when they are in the United States. It is this type of policy that has exaggerated the threat of terrorism and thus caused people to fear more than is necessary. The media offers extensive coverage on horrible happenings that Americans seem to be glued to. On a normal Friday night Fox New Channel has around two million viewers, but on the night of the Paris terrorists attacks this past summer FNC clocked 4.4 million viewers. In turn, all of this shows that terrorism is a moral panic as it has heightened concern, intense emotions, disproportionality, violence and is spread by mass media. Though the panic may be heightened in the immediate days after an attack it has long lasting effects, as many moral panics do. It affects spending, policy and the way people go about their lives.

Some people live in such fear that they “stay away from crowds” and “wash with antibacterial soap immediately after touching mail.” So, yes, fear is a natural and appropriate response to terrorism but the problem comes when powerful people feed this fear for their own gain.

Colan Grace • December 14, 2016

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