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Aug 19 / Great Apes

The Strange Allure of the Word “Terrorism”

I’ve got a lot of things that I want to say about the ongoing disclosures about mass surveillance by the NSA (among other organizations), but I have one quick thought that I want to throw out there.  There is something strange that happens to people as soon as you use the word “terrorism”.  Any time politicians or other prominent authority figures in government want to justify some kind of over-reaching action they can just say “boogeyman” “terrorism” and immediately a startling percentage of the population becomes compliant.  And I really, honestly don’t get it.

I don’t intend in any way to diminish very real acts of terror like the bombing at the Boston Marathon earlier this year or the attacks on the World Trade Center.  But any honest assessment of risks in the average person’s life has to conclude that terrorism is a far smaller threat than all kinds of other things.  And I don’t think people would be willing to accept things like mass surveillance or detaining people without due process in response to these other risks.  Let’s look at one example.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that in 2007 (the most recent year I could find) 2,340 Americans were murdered by their partner (PDF, pages 3-4).  Roughly 2/3 of the victims were women.  That number, like general crime statistics, has fallen considerably from levels in the early 1990s, but has been pretty level since the turn of the century.  Taking that rate of 2,340 per year and multiplying it by the number of years since the World Trade Center attacks (which will result in a low estimate since the 2007 number is lower than other years) gives us 28,080 people killed by their partner between 2001 and 2012.  This considerably dwarfs not only the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks this century, but the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks and the number of Americans killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the Department of Defence estimates that as of 2011 there were 6,747 American deaths in those wars (PDF).

Vastly more Americans are killed by their partners than are killed by terrorists and war combined.  But I don’t believe for a second that people would accept things like constant mass surveillance or detention without due process in order to combat the very real and significant problem of people who are romantically involved killing each other.  Why is that?  It clearly doesn’t make sense rationally.

I have a few ideas why it might be the case.  Even though mass surveillance is something that is done to virtually everyone by definition, when you say it’s to target terrorism it still sounds like it’s something that happens to someone else.  After all, you’re not a terrorist and you don’t associate with terrorists so it isn’t really about you; if the same policies were to be applied to try to prevent intimate partner murders that hits much closer to home because we’re all in relationships at some point or other and we all know people who are in relationships and suddenly it feels like the target is us, and that makes the policies feel worse.

Another major aspect to it is the way that establishment figures in the government and media treat the two issues.  People are deliberately made to feel as though terrorism is an incredibly dangerous and always imminent threat and people react to fear much more strongly than probabilities.  No one in politics or the mainstream press really talks about intimate partner violence so it doesn’t really feel like much of a threat (even though it very clearly is).  There’s also the unusualness of terrorism; the mind reacts less strongly to things that are more routine, as an individual murder of a person by their partner is.

Still, while I can come up with ideas that explain it in part, I still feel like the reaction doesn’t make sense.  So why do people accept limits on freedom in the name of “preventing terrorism” that they would never accept in the name of “preventing [some more serious threat]”?

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