Paris, Manchester, London… It seems that various terrorist attacks have become a part of life in European metropolises. Terrifying, terrible, and unimaginable. It’s natural that news about what has happened on our continent scares us more than reports from African or Asian countries. They evoke in us a fear that the threat is approaching and can strike us at any time.
However, is the constant fear that “something might happen” justified? What supports and increases it? Doctor Robert L. Leahy, an expert in cognitive therapy, mentions several factors that fuel our fear of a possible terrorist attack. In the following lines, I will introduce you to the factors that according to him lead to overestimating the risk of becoming a victim of a similar attack.
How many times have you read about a plane not crashing?
It is obvious that in the media, you will read when and where a terrorist attack took place and how many people died because of it. However, do you usually read that the other days were peaceful, nobody attacked, and nobody died due to terrorism? No. It is the same with plane crashes or even winning the lottery. We only hear about them when they happen. We tend to forget about common and probable situations, and instead, overestimate unlikely events that we read about.
Recent event – probable event
We can also get the feeling that an event that has recently occurred will happen again. Let me explain with an example. A building caught fire in London recently. Under the influence of this event, many of you probably thought, “what if it happened to you.” Did you think about it before the fire in London? Probably not. But the fact that the event happened can give us the feeling that it is real and can easily and quickly be repeated.
The bigger the drama, the more media coverage
We tend to overestimate the risk that is dramatic. The media also plays a role here. Dramatic events attract attention and therefore, are more covered in the media. Less is said about the risk that diseases such as obesity and alcoholism pose to humans. It is less dramatic and therefore less “interesting”. But do they kill fewer people than dramatic terrorism? On the contrary.
Uncertainty increases fear
We overestimate situations that we do not control and that are unclear and indefinite. They give us the feeling that we cannot do anything about them. However, there are more uncertain situations that we face daily, and we usually do not experience fear. They can be, for example, a daily commute to work, meeting sick people, or crossing the street.
The danger of hatred – a double danger
Leathy also speaks about how we tend to overestimate the danger posed by invisible threats (assuming we wouldn’t recognize a terrorist even if they were walking towards us) and when we perceive the perpetrator as malicious, hateful, and attempting to kill us. However, these intentions do not affect the actual probability that we will perish under their influence. Cancer, heart attacks, or traffic accidents do not have the “intention” to kill us, yet they claim more lives daily than terrorism.
Does this still happen?
The media coverage of attacks can also create the impression that these attacks are happening all the time. However, this is not entirely true. They happen more frequently than we would like, but (fortunately) they are not an everyday part of life in every European city. And that is the reality.
Fear can also make us feel like if a similar attack were to happen, we will be there (or become a direct victim). Let’s look at the numbers. For example, the population of Paris is over two million people (not counting the numerous tourists). The November 2015 attacks claimed 137 victims. This is a lot, but when we compare the number of victims to the number of people who were in the city at that time, we find that the vast majority were not affected by the attack. And now back to the present – is there a chance that another attack will occur in Europe in the future? Unfortunately, yes. Does that automatically mean we will become its victim? No.
The danger of succumbing to fear
Fear is a common emotion that is supposed to protect us from possible danger. However, the problem arises when fear becomes disproportionate and begins to affect our lives. How can this constant fear affect us?
In addition to the fact that long-term fear, anxiety, and stress have an unfavorable impact on our physical and mental health and well-being, they can also affect our view of the world. We may be afraid to travel, attend concerts, and enjoy life because of it. We stop perceiving the world as a safe place and instead start seeing it as a minefield full of risks and threats. And in such a world, finding peace and joy is difficult.
The strongest weapon of terrorists
Moreover, by allowing ourselves to be intimidated, we practically play into the hands of terrorist organizations. How? The fact that fear is a strong emotion seems to be very well known to terrorist organizations. Therefore, fear is their strongest weapon. Leathy writes that terrorism is a psychological weapon for those who do not have stronger weapons. If they did, they would not hesitate to use them.
What Works Against Fear?
Constant fear of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack can be very binding and limiting. While it’s easy to acknowledge this fact, it’s not as simple to get rid of the fear. There is no clear and easy solution to this issue, but one interesting approach could be to look at statistics.
Risk analyst Tom Pollock wrote an article after the attack in Nice in the summer of 2016, in which he discusses the probability of dying in a terrorist attack. For example, due to terrorist attacks in France over the past two years (counting from the attack in Nice), 247 people have died. There are 66 million people living in France, so the chance of dying in a terrorist attack is less than two thousandths of a percent, according to Pollock. For comparison, this is 27 times less likely than the probability of dying in a car accident.
Let’s also consider simple facts, such as “there were no attacks in Europe yesterday.” The goal of terrorist groups is to make us believe that attacks are happening all the time and that they are everywhere. However, if this were true, there would be many more attacks and victims (although I am not suggesting that there are few attacks now).
Under the influence of fear and anxiety, we might say, “Yes, the chance of it happening is small, but what if it does happen? What if I am one of the victims?” However, we could also ask ourselves questions like “What if I get this or that disease and die from it?” or “What if I have a fatal accident on the way to work?” But we probably don’t spend our entire lives locked in our homes out of fear of car accidents. So why should it be any different with terrorism?
On the one hand, there are these rational arguments that try to convince us that we shouldn’t be afraid of the terrorist threat. On the other hand, there are our emotions. It is normal to be scared, angry, and frightened after such events. However, it is crucial not to let fear control our view of the world.
Of course, the goal of the article is not to trivialize the terrorist threat, belittle the unnecessary deaths of dozens of innocent people, or dismiss the terrible events that terrorist groups are responsible for. Instead, it aims to provide a different perspective than what is typically presented in the media and explain some of the mechanisms that can influence our perception of terrorism.