America's fear of terrorism is mostly irrational xenophobia

According to Gallup, 51% of US adults are very or somewhat worried that they or their family will become a victim of terrorism. It is clear that most of the respondents implicitly understood this to be foreign terrorism, since the principal solutions they supported were changes to immigration visas and bombing. It is wildly irrational to actively worry that you or your family will be a victim of terrorism. There are a thousand more likely ways for them to die, including by other sources of violence. The chances are similar to being struck by lightning. Or dying because of a piece of furniture falls on you.

So the question is why does terrorism get such undue concern? One possible explanation is availability bias. But that’s probably not it. Far more people fear foreign terrorism than domestic mass shooting, for example, and the only difference there is foreign-ness.

I think the best explanation for the evidence is that humans, generally speaking, are hard-wired to fear foreigners. The more different and exotic they are, the more they are feared. We get much more upset when a foreigner kills someone from our tribe than when a snake does, or lightning does, or one of us does. In the modern world, there is no rational basis for that fear.

This truth has lots of consequences for our politics and our policy, which might be interesting to debate, but I’ll leave the OP at this basic premise.

Foreigner = less predictable. Also, I suspect Americans think there are more Muslims in the US than there actually are, which leads to thinking there are more Islamic terrorists in the US than there actually are. Americans also think they are the center of the Universe, so of course the main objective of Da-esh is to attack the US of A. If something goes wrong somewhere in the world, we wonder why we, or the president, didn’t do something stop it. In the same sense, we assume that when things go wrong in the world, it’s going to affect us disproportionately.

But it would be interesting to see a similar poll taken in Canada, the UK, France and Germany. We might find that Americans aren’t so unusual. Except Canadians would be pretty rational about the whole business, of course. :slight_smile:

Xenophobia, exacerbated by hate-speech and facilitated by CNN et al.

Good idea. According to my thesis, we would expect similarly disproportionate fears because this is a problem with humans generally.

Though I also think that the conservative personality type is more fearful of things foreign than liberals. If that’s so, then a given country’s proportions of liberals and conservatives would affect things.

Think of gun control. A disproportionate amount of the discussion centers around mass shootings even though they represent only a tiny fraction of gun deaths in the US. We get days and days of coverage whenever there is a mass shooting, but most gun deaths go either unreported, or reported only locally, and not on the front page.

And, yeah, the news screws our concern level. Just like people tend to fear flying more than driving even though the former is much safer. But plane crashes are huge news events. Car crashes, not so much.

I address that in the OP. I think a lot of the irrational fear of mass shootings is about availability and recency bias. Fear of foreign terrorism is roughly twice as high as mass shootings, and it’s that difference that I think is explained by xenophobia.

I agree. I think the results would be similar, although not quite as extreme as in the US.

I’m also afraid of flying and driving even though those are safe, too.

Flying is safe. Driving is decidedly unsafe.

So one of those is rational and the other is not.

Do you agree that fear of terrorism is irrational?

In 2015, the majority of people murdered in the US in mass shootings were killed by Jihadi terrorists.

Ok. Do you believe that contradicts something I said, or reinforces it?

Are you afraid of “Jihadi terrorists,” Hank Beecher?


Different beasts. Mass shootings is mostly random, terrorism is targetted at ‘Americans’. Even if it amounts to the same thing in the practical sense, psychologically in the latter you are the enemy.

They are worried about different concepts.

CNN is the network that first comes to mind for you when it comes to xenophobia?

So your hypothesis is that the fact that terrorists target Americans because they are Americans makes people more fearful of terrorism? It is scarier to be targeted than to die indiscriminately?

Maybe. That’s certainly interesting and plausible. Would you consider such a bias against targeted harm rational or irrational?

Nice try. What about the other years?

Indeed. That one got a :dubious: from me.

The Right’s propaganda network has done an excellent job of fanning the flames of xenophobia. To hear them tell it, Muslims (Because all Muslims are terrorists, right?) are planning to go door to door like Girl Scouts, and behead people. Never mind that Islam is the third largest religion in the U.S., and that there are an estimated 3.5 million Muslims in the country. And their audience tends to be Christians who see a war against their religion just because people want to include everyone in their holiday greetings; so Islam is anathema to them – even though they worship the same god.

I think you guys have the media causality mostly backwards. I think they cater to fears about foreign others because it gets them viewership. It may also contribute at the margins to that fear, but I think the direction of causation is mostly that the xenophobia causes that kind of coverage, not vice versa.

Pretty simple. Terrorism provides an ideal justification for endlessly expanding the size and power of government. Politicians and their allies always want to expand the size of power of government, so they always talk about terrorism. Whether the goal du jour is a larger military budget, warrantless wiretapping and NSA data collection, or more unionized TSA employees, it can be shoehorned into some sort of anti-terrorism action. Even things totally unrelated to security, such as corporate bailouts and food regulations, somehow end up having something to do with terrorism.

Fear of death by snakebite or lightning strike doesn’t justify expanding government nearly as well.

I think the OP as phrased is probably pretty right on… But keep in mind that the OP is fairly precise. “Fear” of terrorism motivated by fear of foreigners? Yep, pretty reasonable.

But I think some may take that to mean that policy choices, like whether to try to bomb the snot out of ISIL, is really a separate question. I’m not afraid of ISIL in any meaningful sense, but I favor bombing the snot out of them. That’s because I think they are a menace to many people trying to live peaceful lives - I’m just not one of those being threatened in any realistic way.