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Terrorism And Risk Perception


by Cass Sunstein
David Bell says that it is "a pity" that Overblown, by John Mueller, "isn't getting more attention," because its central thesis--that the risk of terrorism is wildly exaggerated--deserves to be part of public debate. As it happens, I've just finished a long review of Overblown (along with Robert Goodin's What's Wrong With Terrorism?) and the review will appear in The New Republic, of all places, very soon.

Some small points by way of preview: It's not clear that Mueller has any good argument that the United States government should be doing "less," in the way of precautionary measures, than it is now doing. (His provocative arguments may suggest that we should be doing differently--but not necessarily less.) But Mueller is probably correct on an important question: Many individual Americans have felt at serious personal risk since 9/11, even though they are not really in danger. Indeed, many Americans are far more worried about dying in a terrorist attack than they are of dying from risks that are, as a statistical matter, a lot bigger (and still too small to be worth worrying over).

A central problem is that when an event is salient, we often
exaggerate the likelihood of its occurrence, or don't think much
about likelihood at all (focusing only on how bad it would be if it came to fruition). Of course few events are as salient as the 9/11 attacks.

Whether or not Mueller and Goodin are correct on their central
arguments (and I raise a number of objections), their books raise many important questions about risk perception and terrorism.

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