The entire country was alarmed last Christmas when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to bomb a plane travelling from Amsterdam to Detroit. But there were a few things about the situation that likely scared University students a bit more than the general population. For one, Abdulmutallab was kept in the University hospital briefly following his arrest. And many students had likely taken or planned to take the Northwest international flight from Amsterdam to Detroit as part of a study abroad program. I almost took that flight from Amsterdam during the summer of 2009, prior to the attempted bombing.
In the same manner, members of the Chicago Jewish community — myself included — had reason to be alarmed in regards to the attempted terrorist attack last weekend. On Thursday, officials in London and Dubai intercepted two packages with explosives that were mailed from Yemen to the United States. These packages were addressed to Chicago area synagogues, as President Barack Obama announced last Friday, according to The New York Times.
While official addresses haven’t been released, the Chicago Tribune reported that one of the packages was intended for a synagogue in a suburb called Rogers Park. This suburb has particular meaning to me because it’s where I worked for a Jewish charity organization over the summer. It’s frightening to think that a synagogue in the same community was the target of an attempted bombing.
It’s not unusual to fear terrorist attacks. But the reason I bring up these cases is to show that when an individual can personalize an attack or attempted attack in some way, that individual’s fear will likely be amplified. Whether such fears are justified or not (some are, some aren’t), they must be put in perspective. As Freakonomics co-author Steven D. Levitt points out, the average American’s individual chances of dying in a terrorist attack are smaller than his or her chances of dying from a car accident. In this light, one of the biggest mistakes we can make as a country is to act irrationally due to fear and uncertainty.
Public perceptions of terrorism play a large role in shaping national policy. Every attempted act of terrorism ratchets up public fears and results in massive pressure on the government to strengthen its counter-terrorism measures. This was certainly the case with the Christmas Day bomber, and I’d be willing to bet that many Chicago Jews will recall the Yemeni packages in future discussions of terrorism policy. Public officials who are vulnerable to the votes of their constituents have little incentive to go against public fears, and this often shows in policy decisions.
The problem is that such policies aren’t always rational and often don’t take long-term consequences into account. For instance, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress voted by an overwhelming majority to give the executive branch broad powers to combat terrorism. This legislation was in line with public opinion about how to handle the situation.
But in the wake of the legislation, the Bush administration captured roughly 800 alleged “enemy combatants,” most of which were taken without just cause and have since been released. The administration also created the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, which has subjected the U.S. to accusations of human rights abuses. Looking back, it’s hard to say that releasing the executive branch as many limitations as Congress did was the best decision.
Another example of fear motivating potentially unsound policy is the pending decision of how to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other Sept. 11 conspirators — either in a federal court in New York City or a military tribunal. While there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides, public objection to holding terrorists in a major city wields disproportionate influence. The Sept. 11 conspirators are dangerous in the sense that they planned an unprecedented attack on U.S. soil, but the allegation that they are still dangerous in military or FBI custody is driven by blind fear.
I’m not saying that fear is an unreasonable response to terrorist attacks, especially when such attacks effect individuals personally. Nor am I denying that Congress’s decision to grant the executive broad war powers was almost unanimously considered the right thing to do at the time. What I am saying is that we have to be able to learn from our mistakes and develop the ability to analyze our fears in a broader context. When we give our fears undue weight in decision-making, it leads to policy mistakes. In the near future, there are going to be more threats of terrorist attacks and there will be individuals who are personally affected by each one. All of us must be prepared to handle such situations in a rational manner.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.