It's smart politics to exaggerate terrorist threats

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
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.
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."
Bruce Schneier
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 securi