Over the weekend CNN breathlessly reported as "Breaking News"—it breathlessly reports everything as "Breaking News"—a new poll indicating that people are increasingly frightened about terrorism. The accompanying web story stated, "Terrorism has eclipsed the economy as voters' top pick for the biggest issue facing America, a New York Times/CBS News poll has found. Last month only [4 percent] of Americans said terrorism was the most important problem, according to The New York Times. Now nearly one in five … believe it is."
The story goes on:
Following terrorist attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, California, the poll said Americans are more fearful about the likelihood of another terrorist attack than at any other time since the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. …
More than four in 10 Americans—44%—believe an attack is "very" likely to happen in the next few months. And 70% say that ISIS is a major threat to America's security.
Nearly 60% of people are "very" concerned about the threat of terrorism against Americans committed by elements entering the U.S. from other countries. And 63% are "very" concerned about the threat of terrorism against Americans committed by people currently living in the U.S. who are inspired by foreign extremists."
How likely is an American to be a victim? Curiously, CNN never bothers to say.
In fact, the likelihood is so low that the saturation coverage—which is better described as fear-mongering—looks ridiculous. Commonplace things are far more likely to kill Americans than terrorism—from any source—yet you won't learn that by watching TV or reading the daily newspaper.
It's not as though qualified interviewees would be hard to find. John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart have been putting the terrorist threat in perspective for years. Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism is their latest attempt to cool things down.
"Although [over the last 40 years] the yearly chance an American will be killed by a terrorist within the country is about one in 4 million under present conditions," Mueller and Stewart write, "around 40 percent of Americans have professed, in polls taken since late 2001, that they worry they or a family member will become a victim of a terrorist." ["For the period since 2001, the chances are one in 110 million."]
Of course. The media work overtime to make them afraid. But getting killed by an asteroid is more likely. Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Zealand says we have more to fear from bathtubs and vending machines.
After the attacks, American officials from the president on down sounded repeated alarms about how many al-Qaeda operatives (2,000-5,000) and sleeper cells were in America and about a coming second wave of terrorism. The lack of evidence was considered evidence. No operatives or cells were found and no second wave took place, yet no official apologized.
Thus the U.S. government's expenditure of trillions of dollars since 9/11 is shown to be outrageous.
We've been through this before. In the 1980s a group of right-wing "experts," aided by the media, tried to scare Americans into believing that Soviet-trained terrorists were among us. If so, they preferred living here peacefully to creating mayhem.
Why do the government, the media establishment, and an assortment of consultants traffic in fear?
It's not a hard question. Many people profit from fear-mongering about terrorism. Politicians and bureaucrats gain more power. They also gain access to more money (through borrowing, that is, taxation of future generations). That money ends up in the terrorism industry, a constellation of firms that sell the government endless quantities of goods and services.
No presidential candidate dare tell the truth because rivals will portray him or her as a weak-kneed, head-in-the-sand appeaser. Fear-mongering brings the worst to the top.
Finally, the news media and the "sham 'terrorism expert' industry" it fosters have every incentive to exaggerate any danger. Fear-mongering attracts viewers and builds circulation. Why would CNN report something that might prompt viewers to change the channel?
Regular Americans pay a heavy price—in stress (which is a killer), in lost liberty and privacy, and in prosperity forgone. Fear of terrorism also makes people more willing to support American militarism in the Middle East, which creates more would-be terrorists than it destroys and keeps the scam going. What will it take to change this perverse system that thrives on power, war, and fear?
This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog.