The debate between terrorism and security theater has been built up on logical fallacy after logical fallacy. The victim? The truth, lost long ago, buried it was under the rubble of stupidity. I’ll start with the, "there are a million things worse or more dangerous than terrorism" line. It begins like this:
You have more chance of dying in a car crash than you do of a terrorist attack. Cue smug look. Oh how right you are little snarky fella. Why didn’t I think of that? Gosh, the terrorists would have to blow up ten World Trade centers for us to feel as safe as we do in our cars. Man, I feel stupid for being afraid.
Let me illustrate my sarcastic point with some details from my personal experience. Laura and I lived in the Basque Country of Spain for two years. While we were there, ETA was active. There was a car bomb that went off near our apartment. We witnessed riots, riot gear, marches, murders and political assassinations. It all sounds dire, but in fact, I felt "safer" in the Basque Country than I have felt ever in my life. "Crime" was virtually non-existent. Robberies, home invasions, car-jackings? Nobody had ever heard of such a thing. And apart from the targeted violence against agents of the Spanish state, life was extremely tranquil.
By contrast, I had a much better chance of being mugged, murdered, or car-jacked in New York, DC, or St. Louis.
The question now is, where would I rather live?
Me personally? I would rather live somewhere else besides the Basque Country. Yeah, you heard that right. The Basque Country’s ETA problem makes me madder than random violent crime… even a lot of it.
It’s not a mechanism of risk per se. My net risk of dying through crime or accident is much higher in the US than the Basque Country, but net risk of dying isn’t the main metric that I go by.
Your net risk of dying is much higher driving a car than going your office in the World Trade Center. Why did the country go crazy after 9-11? Why have we taken such extreme measures when surely the raw logical dispassionate numbers of the situation relegate it to a minor event?
I think it has to do with intent. I’d much rather be mugged randomly than targeted politically. If I were to live permanently in the Basque Country, I would have a political opinion. It would be my right to have an opinion and discuss it as I see fit with those whom I consider my friends. If I should run for political office, I would expect that if my opinion differed from those in the extreme that we would be able to discuss our differences like reasonable people. If your violence exists for the purposes of political coercion then it is deadlier than physical harm. If your violence is targeted at someone for the purposes of silencing them for what they say or think, then you are more deadly than a random car accident. There is malevolent intent far beyond the death of the individual involved.
The terrorist hopes to spread his influence far above his real capability as an individual. The terrorist’s target isn’t you. His target is the freedom of ideas in an open society.
That is why it is dangerous, more dangerous than a traffic accident. In a world where the worse possible thing you can lose is your life, then I guess they are more or less equivalent. But in a world where we value justice and liberty higher than individual life, that terrorist is a whole lot more dangerous than your car.