Imagine you’re afraid of spiders. If you seek psychiatric treatment, your therapist will try to convince you that your fear is irrational. She’ll tell you over and over again that daddy long legs are harmless and black widows are rare. Ignore the creatures crawling around your attic, she’ll say; just live your life.
At least, that’s what your therapist will do if she’s good at her job. If she’s bad at it, she’ll tell you that spiders represent a significant threat to your safety. Your anxiety will spiral out of control and may seriously damage your health.
In response to aggression from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, Western leaders are acting like the bad therapist — building up the threat instead of putting it in perspective, even using it as an excuse to stoke xenophobia. If they keep at it, our communal anxiety will spiral out of control and may seriously damage our collective health.
Fear of terror can disrupt and worsen our lives in the absence of an actual attack. For instance, recently a single e-mail from an unknown source led to school closures across Los Angeles at a cost of more than $20 million.
To Israelis, this is an old story. During the darkest months of the second Palestinian intifada in my country, when suicide bombers occasionally blew themselves up in public places, terror — not terrorism, but terror — almost obliterated the public sphere. I recall that going out for dinner or to the theater was considered suicidal. However, the objective risk of being involved in a terror attack at a restaurant or theater wasn’t much greater than the risk of being involved in a car accident during a normal drive home from work. Tourism was almost nonexistent despite the fact that the homicide rate in Washington, D.C., was far higher during that period than the combined death rate from homicide and terror in Israel.
In 2004, the last full year of the intifada, more people were killed in the New Orleans metropolitan area than in the entire nation of Israel, counting civilian intefadeh victims.
When a good therapist treats an anxious patient, she tells him to divert his attention away from the cause of the anxiety as much as possible. Scared of spiders? Don’t think about spiders.
Politicians do the opposite. They never mention that Westerners are statistically more likely to drown in a bathtub than die in a terrorist attack. They’d rather drone on about eradicating terrorism and reaching its perpetrators wherever they are; they’d rather rehearse the biography of every terrorist and every victim. That’s analogous to entertaining a crowd of hypochondriacs with gruesome descriptions of hospital emergency rooms.
Whatever American presidential hopefuls may say at their primary debates, the treatment for terror need not be the prevention of all terror attacks, just as the treatment for entomophobia, fear of insects, need not be the extinction of all insects and the treatment for hypochondria need not be the elimination of all illness.
That’s true in large part because we cannot prevent all terror attacks, exterminate all insects or eliminate illness, but we can deal with the fear these problems generate. Nevertheless, governments peddle terror almost like a form of pornography.
Terrorists want to encourage panic, to alter the collective mental state, and our feckless politicians are helping them achieve their goals.
Government leaders participate in fear-mongering because they can portray themselves as the saviors of their constituents, as righteous Davids fighting evil Goliaths. The media benefits because sensational stories always sell well. Terrorists love it because they get their work done for them by others. The only party that ends up losing in this weird coalition is the public.
When the bad therapist fuels her patient’s fear of spiders, at least she doesn’t create more spiders. There is no connection between the amount of fear in the world and the number of spiders.
Fear of terrorism, however, generates yet more terrorism. When terrorists see that their actions are having the intended effect, they take heart, and plan more attacks.
If terror attacks were to receive the same amount of media coverage as, say, domestic violence — a far more lethal threat — they would probably soon be a relic of history. They would cease to exist because the cost of conducting attacks would outweigh their benefit to the perpetrators. This is precisely what happened in the 1980s to terrorist groups such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigades when the European media started losing interest in them.
Violence in any form, regardless of motivation, destroys lives and traumatizes families. But while extensive coverage of domestic violence can actually reduce the violence by creating awareness, similar coverage of terror attacks can only propagate it.
Eyal Winter is a professor of economics at the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of “Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think.” He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.