Many of us fear improbable and uncommon dangers more than everyday ones. This suggests we've got our anxieties backward.
Think of flying versus driving. White-knuckle fliers, haunted by images of fiery plane crashes despite air travel's safety record, are typically unbothered by the comparatively hazardous open road.
Our misinformed perceptions are largely a function of deep-seated apprehension about being powerless in treacherous situations. The same skewed response informs our view of terrorism, that catastrophic menace which renders us helpless when it strikes. What could be more alarming? No wonder we make an "ism" of the scourge from a word denoting bone-chilling fear.
Terrorizing yes, but just how common is terrorism?
For Americans, not very. September 11, 2001 was an outlier. Since that epochal day, several dozen Americans, at most, have died from domestic terrorist attacks (the actual number varies depending on how terrorism is defined).
Meanwhile, in 2010, a typical year in terms of terrorist lethality, 15 Americans were killed worldwide by crazed fanatics, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. Each year about the same number of Americans are crushed to death by falling television sets or furniture — you have as much to fear from your Samsung flat screen or IKEA bookshelf as from al-Qaida.
Of course, relying on body counts alone to gauge the risk from terrorism doesn't tell the whole story, as foiled extremist plots also figure into the equation. But a more thorough accounting does not meaningfully alter the conclusion that terrorism constitutes a relatively minor threat, akin to that posed by anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — an occasionally lethal nuisance, but by no means an existential danger.
Yet, our outsized fear of terrorism has triggered an overzealous reaction. Since 9/11, the annual intelligence budget has ballooned by 250 percent. Counting military intelligence outlays, it now tops $74 billion, or more than the yearly defense budgets of all other countries except China and Russia.
Where does all the money go?
A recent Washington Post expose found that nearly 2,000 companies in roughly 10,000 locations around the country work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence — a reflection of the fact that 70 percent of the intelligence budget is outsourced to private contractors.
Since 9/11, no fewer than 33 massive building complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been built or are nearly complete; their collective acreage is roughly equivalent to almost three Pentagons. The Washington Post quotes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wondering, "Do we have more [intelligence capacity] than we need?"
In a word, yes!
An overabundance of intelligence assets focused on mitigating a relative dearth of terrorist threats creates massive redundancies as supply outstrips demand. Work is duplicated. Waste abounds.
The sprawling Intelligence Industrial Complex also spawns vulnerabilities of its own: The potential for leaks increases as the volume of Americans in possession of security clearances grows — now nearly five million have them. Moreover, the temptation to use the country's formidable snooping infrastructure in ways that endanger civil liberties grows as the intelligence leviathan metastasizes.
Perhaps most problematic, as a result of our obsession with terrorism, a catastrophic, but low-probability threat, we're neglecting chronic, incremental dangers that pose far greater risks. Take global warming. The creeping menace of climate change has the genuine potential to be calamitous, yet we sit on the sidelines as ever-increasing levels of heat-trapping gases accumulate in the atmosphere.
This is lousy risk management. Instead, we should redirect resources misallocated on intelligence toward transforming our carbon-intensive economy. The move would make us far safer from the many worrying impacts that may stem from a warming planet — effects that might even include terrorism.
In March of this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a report on behalf of the entire intelligence community citing climate change as a national security threat. Global warming, the document said, will test weak governments by negatively impacting food, water, and energy resource availability. Terrorist elements, in turn, may "exploit any of these [climate-induced] weaknesses to conduct illicit activity and/or recruitment and training."
By confronting global warming, then, we would also be confronting terrorism — a rare risk management "twofer" addressing both chronic and catastrophic dangers. Admittedly, the above may be a tough sell when we're unjustifiably panic-stricken by "al-Qaida 2.0" and other extremists groups lurking around every corner, but as Nobel Laureate André Gide observed, "There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them."
Having just marked the 12th anniversary of 9/11, it's high time we begin assessing risk with reasoned judgment, not irrational fear. To do otherwise would hand a victory to those fanatics whose precise goal is to terrorize us.
Jon Shifrin is a foreign affairs officer at the Department of State. Previously, he worked for Congress and at think tanks in Washington, D.C. and Europe. The views expressed here his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.