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
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT