Skip to main content

It's smart politics to exaggerate terrorist threats

By Bruce Schneier, Special to CNN
May 20, 2013 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
<a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/16/us/boston-marathon-explosions/index.html?hpt=hp_t2'>The bombings in Boston</a> on Monday, April 15, 2013, serve as a cruel reminder that the U.S. has seen other terror attacks on home soil. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/us/boston-bombings-galleries/index.html'>See all photography related to the Boston bombings.</a> The bombings in Boston on Monday, April 15, 2013, serve as a cruel reminder that the U.S. has seen other terror attacks on home soil. See all photography related to the Boston bombings.
HIDE CAPTION
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
Terror attacks on home soil
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bruce Schneier: It's smart politics to exaggerate terrorist threats and security threats
  • Schneier: A politician wants to be seen as taking charge and demanding answers
  • He says once a security system is in place, it can be very hard to dislodge it
  • Schneier: Many unneeded security measures are pushed by government bureaucracy

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive."

(CNN) -- Terrorism causes fear, and we overreact to that fear. Our brains aren't very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are, and we fear them more than probability indicates we should.

Our leaders are just as prone to this overreaction as we are. But aside from basic psychology, there are other reasons that it's smart politics to exaggerate terrorist threats, and security threats in general.

The first is that we respond to a strong leader. Bill Clinton famously said: "When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody that's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right." He's right.

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier

The second is that doing something -- anything -- is good politics. A politician wants to be seen as taking charge, demanding answers, fixing things. It just doesn't look as good to sit back and claim that there's nothing to do. The logic is along the lines of: "Something must be done. This is something. Therefore, we must do it."

The third is that the "fear preacher" wins, regardless of the outcome. Imagine two politicians today. One of them preaches fear and draconian security measures. The other is someone like me, who tells people that terrorism is a negligible risk, that risk is part of life, and that while some security is necessary, we should mostly just refuse to be terrorized and get on with our lives.

Fast-forward 10 years. If I'm right and there have been no more terrorist attacks, the fear preacher takes credit for keeping us safe. But if a terrorist attack has occurred, my government career is over. Even if the incidence of terrorism is as ridiculously low as it is today, there's no benefit for a politician to take my side of that gamble.

The fourth and final reason is money. Every new security technology, from surveillance cameras to high-tech fusion centers to airport full-body scanners, has a for-profit corporation lobbying for its purchase and use. Given the three other reasons above, it's easy -- and probably profitable -- for a politician to make them happy and say yes.

For any given politician, the implications of these four reasons are straightforward. Overestimating the threat is better than underestimating it. Doing something about the threat is better than doing nothing. Doing something that is explicitly reactive is better than being proactive. (If you're proactive and you're wrong, you've wasted money. If you're proactive and you're right but no longer in power, whoever is in power is going to get the credit for what you did.) Visible is better than invisible. Creating something new is better than fixing something old.

Those last two maxims are why it's better for a politician to fund a terrorist fusion center than to pay for more Arabic translators for the National Security Agency. No one's going to see the additional appropriation in the NSA's secret budget. On the other hand, a high-tech computerized fusion center is going to make front page news, even if it doesn't actually do anything useful.

This leads to another phenomenon about security and government. Once a security system is in place, it can be very hard to dislodge it. Imagine a politician who objects to some aspect of airport security: the liquid ban, the shoe removal, something. If he pushes to relax security, he gets the blame if something bad happens as a result. No one wants to roll back a police power and have the lack of that power cause a well-publicized death, even if it's a one-in-a-billion fluke.

We're seeing this force at work in the bloated terrorist no-fly and watch lists; agents have lots of incentive to put someone on the list, but absolutely no incentive to take anyone off. We're also seeing this in the Transportation Security Administration's attempt to reverse the ban on small blades on airplanes. Twice it tried to make the change, and twice fearful politicians prevented it from going through with it.

Lots of unneeded and ineffective security measures are perpetrated by a government bureaucracy that is primarily concerned about the security of its members' careers. They know the voters are more likely to punish them more if they fail to secure against a repetition of the last attack, and less if they fail to anticipate the next one.

What can we do? Well, the first step toward solving a problem is recognizing that you have one. These are not iron-clad rules; they're tendencies. If we can keep these tendencies and their causes in mind, we're more likely to end up with sensible security measures that are commensurate with the threat, instead of a lot of security theater and draconian police powers that are not.

Our leaders' job is to resist these tendencies. Our job is to support politicians who do resist.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT