How big a threat is terrorism?

The following Q&A on terrorism is part of Learning Life’s Big Questions Series.  The series offers experts’ short answers to big questions, with more information about the experts and their research for those curious to learn more.  We inaugurated the series on the 12th anniversary of 9/11 (2013) with three big questions about terrorism and provocative answers from three noted terrorism researchers.  This page offers their answers to our second question: how big a threat is terrorism? 

Read expert answers to Question 1 (what are the underlying causes of terrorism?) and Question 3 (how does news media reporting shape terrorism and public perception of terrorism?).


Dr. Ziad Munson:

Regular Americans trying to judge the threat of terrorism from the media coverage it receives or the amount of tax dollars spent on it, would certainly conclude that terrorism represents a grave threat to our society.  The annual budget for the Department of Homeland Security, whose principal mission is to prevent terrorism, is over $43 billion (by way of comparison, the budget for the entire Department of Education is about $46 billion).  The New York Times ran 184 different articles with “terrorism” in the headline in 2011 and 2012, despite the fact that only a single act of terrorism occurred in the U.S. in those years, a white supremacist attack on a Sikh temple.

The actual risk terrorism looks much different than can be accounted for by either federal spending or media attention.  The best way to evaluate the threat of terrorism is to compare the risk of dying in a terrorist attack to the risk of dying due to other causes.  Here the facts are clear:  You are 8 times as likely to die from accidental electrocution than from a terrorist attack; 12 times more likely to die from accidental suffocation in bed; and over 1,000 times more likely to die in a car accident.  In fact, the chance of dying at the hands of international terrorists is about the same as drowning in a toilet or in an accident involving a deer.  None of these statistics mean that terrorism isn’t a threat or that we should be complacent in combating it.  But they do suggest that much of our fear of terrorism is misplaced.  In fact, recent studies suggest that the fear of terrorism can be more deadly than acts of terrorism themselves: the fear of flying after the 9/11 attacks led to approximately 250 more driving deaths each year than would have occurred had people chosen to fly at the same rate they did before the attack.  This is many times more than the number of Americans killed each year in terrorist attacks.

Dr. Gary LaFree:

One’s risk of being injured or killed in a terrorist act is indeed statistically very small, but it’s worth emphasizing that the threat of terrorism can be as important as the actual violence.  Terrorism captures the public imagination and incites fear, as we experienced right here in the Washington D.C. metro area when John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo shot and killed nearly a dozen commuters in Maryland and Virginia over 23 days in October 2002.  The 9/11 terrorists in turn killed an unusually large number of people, but their impact on policy and public perception of terrorism has been massive.

The great fear terrorism inspires seems to be due to its randomness, but also the seriousness of the potential threat.  There is the possibility of even more destructive attacks than 9/11, like a chemical, radiological, biological or nuclear attack.  Think, for example, of the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, which killed thirteen people, but could have killed many, many more given crowded subways and the deadliness of sarin gas.  The combination of densely packed urban populations and technological advances increase potential damage terrorists can inflict.  It used to be that you needed a whole complex to create dangerous weapons of mass destruction, but technological improvements have made it such that you can carry a dangerous chemical lab in a suitcase.  Nowadays, you can get instructions for constructing a bomb free on the internet. Thus, we still need policy that protects against the really bad possibilities that are very unlikely, but that would be disastrous if they happened.

For more information on terrorism research, visit the University of Maryland’s National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START)



Gary LaFree is Director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.  START is currently engaged in approximately 40 research projects dealing mostly with the human causes and consequences of terrorism.  Dr. LaFree is a Fellow of the American Society of Criminology (ASC), and a member of the National Academy of Science’s Crime, Law and Justice Committee.  He has served as President of the ASC and of the ASC’s Division on International Criminology.  Dr. LaFree has published more than 70 articles and three books.  Much of Dr. LaFree’s current research is on trends in criminal and political violence.

Ziad Munson is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Lehigh University, where he founded and currently directs the Social Science Research Center.  He received his B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1993 and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1996 and 2002.  His research and teaching focuses on the intersection of popular mobilization, civic engagement, and religion.  He is the author of The Making of Pro-Life Activists, a study of recruitment and mobilization in the American pro-life movement (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  He has also authored articles and chapters on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, religion and politics in the U.S., and the role of civil society in wartime.   He is currently working on a new project on the organizational infrastructure of international political violence.  Click here for more on Dr. Munson’s teaching and research.