Taking the recent London incident as an example, most of the UK's media is still dominated by its coverage. The media's obsession with it, is a result of the public's demand for the coverage. Why do we allow terrorist incidents which are so far and few between and cause such a low number of deaths per year, to impact our policies so drastically? Murder cases and extremely violent crimes etc..., people just seem to brush aside in comparison. A lot of people would say preceeding an event like this "this is why we should stop immigration" "it will only get worse" and other arguments like it.

However, the statistics show that there is no upward trend: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_Great_Britain

Moreover, the actual quantifiable impact (taking emotion out of the equation), is negligible compared to so many other issues, like the state of the NHS, or police funding or changes in legislation for health and safety - as just a few examples. No doubt someone will make the argument that the terrorist is attempting to attack our way of life and so it symbolically means more. But there are two issues with that, firstly it's an emotion-based argument being used to influence government policy, and secondly there are many murder/violence cases where the morality surrounding the case should be of equal if not more concern.

  • 4
    The answer is likely better found in psychology.se or marketing.se :)
    – user1530
    Mar 24, 2017 at 15:41
  • Unless you define it with further details, the question, "Why do we allow terrorist incidents […] to impact our policies so drastically?" seems to be far too rhetoric. Mar 24, 2017 at 16:19
  • You have to take into account all immigrant crime, not just terrorism. As an example, around 50% of young Moroccan men in the Netherlands have been arrested at least once. Likewise most prisoners in France come from the Northern African countries. Those people are not as visible, but still contribute to the anti-immigrant sentiment. Jun 1, 2017 at 10:06

4 Answers 4


Moreover, the actual quantifiable impact (taking emotion out of the equation), is negligible compared to so many other issues, like the state of the NHS, or police funding or changes in legislation for health and safety - as just a few examples.

But we don't receive information without emotion. We receive information from the news media. And the news media is driven primarily by ratings, which are impacted by emotion.

The common and everyday are not news. If a person walks too close to a dog and is bit, that's not news. That's just the dog behaving as a dog does. If a human being bites a dog, that is news. That doesn't happen every day. Now, in aggregate, the danger from dogs biting people is greater than the danger from people who bite dogs (who may also bite people). But who can argue with locking up the one lunatic who goes around biting dogs and people?

Terrorism also involves a rare event: violence directed for political reasons rather than personal. It's true that the danger from mundane crime is greater than that of terrorism. But there aren't so many obvious fixes for mundane crime. There are obvious solutions to terrorism that comes almost entirely from a single group of people, primarily first and second generation immigrants. And since the media makes sure that we know of each terrorist incident, we spend more time thinking about it.

In the last week, the United Kingdom experienced one terrorist incident, killing five people (including the terrorist). The UK experienced 573 homicides total in 2015, more than one a day. So chances are that in the same week, at least seven people were murdered more conventionally. If we went back to the last terrorist incident before this, that number would likely become more lopsided and there'd be more murders than injuries due to terrorism.

In 2013, 1713 people died in car accidents. That's three times as many people as died from murders of all types in 2015. But again, accidents have many causes which are hard to address.

Terrorism may not be getting worse, but it could. There have been several terrorist incidents that were worse than the most recent one in the UK. For example, thousands died in the US on 9/11. That single event killed more people in one day than die in the UK from murders and car accidents combined for a year. Should we wait until after that happens (again)? Or proactively avoid it?

For instance, if I were to propose a tax increase for everyone of some small amount, with the aim of increasing NHS funding - how popular would that be? Now, if I were to propose barring all immigration from certain countries with the aim of reducing these rare terrorist incidents, how popular would that be?

But your small tax increase is a cost. What is the equivalent cost of barring immigration from certain countries? Many feel that immigration already costs:

  1. Vetting immigrants requires time. Some number of government employees do nothing but vet immigrants from the relevant countries. In a ban, you can either move those people over to cover other immigrants, or you can lay them off and use the funds to increase NHS funding.

  2. Immigrants will use some level of government benefits. Will the increased taxes they pay entirely offset this? Statistically yes.

  3. But should we give all the increased taxes to the immigrant? Or is the immigrant displacing someone else from receiving the same job? And that hits at least twice. Once because it reduces the benefits of immigration (more taxes). And a second time because it harms the person who would otherwise have gotten that job. Perhaps a third time because wages for other people are lowered, although that gets dicey--the industry has to be rather immigrant specific.

It is clear that a broad-based tax to increase National Health Service (NHS) funding will involve paying a tax. That cost is clear. It is less clear that modest increases in NHS funding will save lives. It may be true, but it also may not. It's very difficult to measure, as what is needed is a way to study what happens with a little extra funding versus without it. And people tend not to like real experiments, e.g only giving half of people extra care.

For example, a quick search finds thousands dying of kidney problems. The recommended solution is for nurses to provide more water to patients. How much would that cost? The water cost is trivial. The really expensive part is having the nurses serve it. But nurses already visit patients. How much extra time would it take to give them water? That article has no idea.

Note how the article engages in the same kind of emotion tugging in favor of its policy as immigration opponents use in favor of theirs. 40,000 deaths! That's a big number. Mostly caused by side effects of surgery is almost hidden in the article. Can be caused by dehydration. Nurses should give patients more water! But they don't say how many deaths are caused by dehydration versus how many are caused by side effects of surgery. The implication of the headline is that all 40,000 deaths are caused by dehydration.

The real question is how much will additional funding to NHS reduce deaths? If the newly hired nurses still don't push water on their patients, it might not reduce deaths at all. If the current nurses start pushing water on their patients, we might not need the additional nurses (note that this problem involves someone getting sick at the hospital and requiring a longer hospital stay and expensive treatment; fix the problem and you free up funding to address other problems).

Policy is hard. It requires a real attention to detail. Politics is easy. It can operate through tugging emotions. After all, once you win, you can always figure out the policy, right?

If you want people to pay more attention to facts and less to rare events, then you need to start a news organization that is fact-based and gets people to watch it. Simple to say; hard to do.

  • The main thing I'm trying to compare is this: There are people who would vote in favour of anti-immigration policies, with their main motive being to prevent terrorism. Now, take take the economic cost of restricting freedom of movement, and compare it with the benefits (solely with regards to preventing terrorism as in their mind). Now think of all the things you could do with that 'cost' instead. You could fund more security, better health services etc.. Whilst the benefits of these aren't immediately quantifiable, it should be clear that they far exceed the benefits of the anti-immigration.
    – mrnovice
    Mar 24, 2017 at 19:56
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    @mrnovice I think that is a highly opinionated and impossible to prove/disprove statement. As a quick counter example though, take the WTC attacks. It cost billions in direct damages, plus billions in lost economic development in NYC over the next decade. How do you compare that against security costs? How do you compare the potential of similarly scaled attacks against security costs? Mar 24, 2017 at 20:12

I think there are three facets to this.

First, murder cases and violent crimes do influence policy. This is what the police are for. That is thousands of people who spend their careers (and our tax dollars) working to minimize crime. And the legislatures do spend time on budgetary, operational and policy matters in this space. However... it's kind of boring. This is, especially on the budgetary and operational side (which is the vast majority of it) the mundane parts of government that move slow, aren't interesting, and wouldn't hold up people interest in the news.

Second, there is a critical difference between a random murder case and a terrorist attack: organization. Let's say a man finds his wife cheating on him and he murders his wife. That's terrible. Its sad. But it's over. It's an isolated incident and its effects were only targeted at a microcosm of society.

Terrorism is not like that. Terrorist attacks are often times large scale and organized. The goal is generally to hit as much as you can. Now thankfully in our current society that ends up being not that much. As you mentioned, terrorist attacks are pretty rare and generally don't do catastrophic societal damage. But why is that? If the terrorists had free reign then there would be catastrophic societal damage. If the husband had free reign the damage would not extend beyond his wife. Therefore there is value in having continued effort to combat terrorist activities.

Finally, terrorism creates good political opportunity. It's interesting stuff that grips the public's mind. It's an easy platform to allow politicians to show their tough on crime/terrorism stance.

  • Why the downvote? Mar 24, 2017 at 17:46
  • Note I didn't downvote, but I disagree with some of what you're saying. For instance, if I were to propose a tax increase for everyone of some small amount, with the aim of increasing NHS funding - how popular would that be? Now, if I were to propose barring all immigration from certain countries with the aim of reducing these rare terrorist incidents, how popular would that be? Now compare the popularity, with the benefits/impact of the policy. Of course there are other reasons to reduce migration, but many would cite terrorism concerns (taking the US travel ban as example) as a prime reason.
    – mrnovice
    Mar 24, 2017 at 18:43
  • My answer is not addressing the validity or effectiveness of any particular policy. Your question asks why so much effort is placed on terrorism policies in general since they have such a low actual effect on society. My answer is trying to address that. Mar 24, 2017 at 19:05
  • Yes but in your answer, you referred to the effects of a man murdering his wife being only targeted at a microcosm of society, however that is mis-leading. Taking a thief as an example, imagine how many robberies occur, and how indiscriminate they can be. Then across society, you have many more people being affected than are by terrorism. Of course, if you removed all security measures, and gave terrorists a nuke, then their effects would be much bigger - but there's no evidence to suggest they have such capabilities and therefore their effect upon society is still minimal in comparison.
    – mrnovice
    Mar 24, 2017 at 19:10
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    @mrnovice I think there is evidence of terrorists getting their hands on WMDs. North Korea is basically a terrorist state - it has nukes. ISIS used chemical weapons. Terrorists are trying to grow their capabilities in an organized fashion. Common thieves are not. They still both have significant government resources going after them though. Mar 24, 2017 at 19:20

"This is an issue we as a community are strong enough to ignore." is probably true. See Skeptics.SE question on the risk from vending machines or toddlers with guns vs terrorists. We do spend political time fixing vending machines and making guns less likely to be used by toddlers though.

"Fear Them; Trust Us." is a time honored political strategy. The idea that someone might kill you for no personal reason is catchy. Obviously it probably won't be you, but it might. Lotteries have done very good business on a similar notion for a long time.

You may wish to live in a world where emotional arguments or issues are discounted, but that's not the one we have. Democracy means swaying large numbers of people is necessary. And since many people think many different ways, but feel mostly the same emotions are a much more cost effective ways of running things. Democracy also means there is a political process in your area you might be able to use to influence government reactions or education to try and make 'better' citizens for the future, if you think this is a problem worth fixing.

  • I seriously doubt there's any kind of risk from a vending machine with a gun. :P Mar 24, 2017 at 18:38
  • Right; the system works. Now we need to crack down on the pandas.
    – user9389
    Mar 24, 2017 at 18:49

This issue and others like it are the subject of a branch of sociology pioneered by Stanley Cohen: moral panic theory.

Under this theory, terrorists can be seen as "folk devils". In the West, at least, their impact is objectively low (paraphrasing Zoz: deaths from terrorism are about as common as deaths from bubonic plague), but is amplified by agents of social control such as politicians and media outlets. Wikipedia has a concise summary:

According to Stanley Cohen, often considered the researcher that first coined the term "moral panic", there are five key stages in the construction of a moral panic:

  1. Someone, something or a group are defined as a threat to social norms or community interests
  2. The threat is then depicted in a simple and recognizable symbol/form by the media
  3. The portrayal of this symbol rouses public concern
  4. There is a response from authorities and policy makers
  5. The moral panic over the issue results in social changes within the community

In 1971 Stanley Cohen investigated a series of "moral panics". Cohen used the term "moral panic" to characterize the reactions of the media, the public, and agents of social control to youth disturbances. This work, involving the Mods and Rockers, demonstrated how agents of social control amplified deviance. According to Cohen, these groups were labeled as being outside the central core values of consensual society and as posing a threat to both the values of society and society itself, hence the term "folk devils".

(Source: Wikipedia - Moral panic. License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Moral panic theory helps us to recognise the pattern of social behaviour of which sensationalist reporting, and exaggerated public awareness, and reactionary politics are a part. However, it does not quite explain the reasons why these patterns occur: it lacks an empirically-established causal chain.

I speculate that:

  • acts of violence against other people have a high propensity to trigger amygdalic reactions; and
  • the irrationality - i.e. cognitive biases - displayed in moral panics are caused at least partly on such reactions.

This would be consonant with the work of Daniel Goleman and other researchers in the field of emotional intelligence.

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