Feb. 23, 2007 -- Terrorism is certainly something worth worrying about. An ABC News poll found that most Americans do worry about terrorism, and a third worry they personally will be a victim of a terrorist attack. But do we worry too much?
Last month, a publicity stunt for a Cartoon Network television program, which used illuminated light screens that look like a child's Lite Brite toy, practically shut down the city of Boston.
"Commerce was disrupted, transportation routes were paralyzed, residents were stranded and relatives across the nation were in fear for their loved ones here in the city of Boston," said Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley.
Boston authorities went on full alert, fearing the light screens were bombs. Police and bomb squads rushed to collect the light screens and even blew one up with a water cannon. "It is unconscionable that in this environment, post 9/11, that a corporation … would do something like this in an urban city," said Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis.
But wait a second. The light screens caused no fear or problems in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and six other cities where they were placed, and the devices stayed there for weeks. They were harmless! But it goes to show you how tense people are about terrorism.
The Rivardo family used to live near New York City, where Wayne Rivardo ran a successful car dealership. But after 9/11, he was just too frightened to live near a city.
"Something as simple as going to work could be the last moment you spend on the planet. … It just, it doesn't resonate well with me," he said.
So, he sold his business and moved to a part of Florida where he believes his family is safer. And to stay safe, Rivardo insists the family not travel by plane. They take trains or drive when they visit the rest of their family back in New York. "There's been a lot of reports of, I guess, when a plane goes down, that the carnage … that word just does something for me," he said.
"He's definitely the bigger worrier," said Rivardo's wife, Donna.
While she says she understands his concerns, she misses her family back in New York. "It bothers me because I really want to get on a plane and just go," she said.
According to Rivardo, "It's just is tough for me to get [on] a plane. … I stay up at night thinking about if I could do it. I'm trying to keep my wife happy and move in the right direction, but I just think it would be very, very difficult for me to do it at this point," he said.
A Constant Threat
There are good reasons to worry about terrorism. Our leaders keep telling us to be vigilant, because we're vulnerable.
"Our country is still the target of terrorists who want to kill many," said President Bush during his State of the Union Address in 2005. "They're out to hurt us. They're out to hurt us badly."
Thomas Keane, chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said recently, "They want to kill as many of us as they can possibly kill. They're clever. They plan over long periods of time, and it is a generational threat. It's something, unfortunately, our children, maybe even our grandchildren, may be dealing with."
Many politicians and terrorism analysts say we're just not doing enough to keep our nation safe. Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security and the author of "Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack," says we need to increase security not just at airports but at malls, stadiums and at schools.
"We can have deterrence measures like police patrols … greater use of bomb-detecting dogs, and bomb sensors, other such technologies … random bag searches," he said. "If terrorists see that such measures are in place, they're less likely to strike."
'A Spectacular Exception'?
Ohio State University professor of political science John Mueller disagrees. He's the author of the new book "Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them." "Your chances of being killed, at present rates, by an international terrorist outside of a war zone is something like one in 80,000. It's about the same as being killed by an asteroid.
"Outside of war zones, the amount of destruction is maybe 200 people a year," Mueller continued. "Now that's 200 people too many, but that's hardly an existential threat. In the United States, between 300 and 400 people die every year just from drowning in bathtubs."
But what about Sept. 11, when about 3,000 people died? Mueller explained that Sept. 11 was not a typical terrorist attack. Terrorists were able to capture four planes, and two huge buildings collapsed. "It's a spectacular exception to what terrorists have been able to do," he said.
But if terrorists get nuclear weapons, the equation changes, according to Mueller. "The probabilities are extremely low that they'll be able to do it … but the consequences, of course, could be very high, so putting a certain amount of money in that area certainly makes a fair amount of sense."
A Terrorism Industry
Mueller said there's a terrorism industry made up of the media, the bureaucracy, business and politicians. "Politicians notice that when they sort of hype the terrorist threat, people respond favorably. I think politicians are pretty much afraid to say what I said … the chance of being killed is very, very small … and they never say it, even though that's true.
"There's also the media, which basically says anything that bleeds, leads," Mueller explained. "You've also got the bureaucracy … and if they say things like, 'well, your chances of being killed are very, very small,' people will say, 'then how come we're spending so much money on this?'"
Economist Veronique de Rugy called this "'terror porn,' because porn sells … terrorism sells even better. It's great for politicians. They can campaign on the fact that they are protecting us," she said. "They also can campaign on the fact that they're bringing more money to their states. And everyone loves it."
De Rugy has spent years combing over the Department of Homeland Security budget. She concluded that we're wasting billions of dollars on security measures that don't make us safer.
"We've been spending a huge amount of money on subsidizing … local government, and then firefighters, for them to buy hazmat suits, which they will never use," she said.
Small Towns Get Big Money
Lots of small towns do get big money for homeland security. Lake County, Tenn., a very rural county with only 8,000 people, got nearly $200,000 in homeland security money.
"I don't know that terrorists will come, but I don't know they won't come," said Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson. He was happy to take the money, and he used it to buy all sorts of things, such as two trailers, each filled with emergency supplies such as a four-wheeler, generators, cots, tables, chairs, coolers, flashlights and other supplies.
"This is what we thought we needed," Roberson said. In response to critics, who say the money is wasted, he claimed, "We deserve protection just like the people in the big cities all over the United States."
At least he didn't do what officials in Columbus, Ohio, did: spend it on bulletproof vests for police dogs.
"The money is there to take. So, of course, they're are gonna get it," said de Rugy. "Why shouldn't they?"
But aren't we talking about more than money, aren't we talking about human lives?
"But spending money on the wrong thing -- which will end up not saving any lives -- is not gonna change anything," de Rugy said.
The Cost of Consequences
Many people say spending we're not spending enough on homeland security "We need to devote significantly more resources to homeland security in this country," said Ervin. "It's expensive, but we have to balance that against the consequences if there were to be an attack."
Ervin also said we should search more bags -- at stadiums, concerts, schools and shopping malls. We must make ourselves more secure.
"Well, what a terrorist would say [is], 'well, if that shopping mall has guards around it, I'll go to the one that doesn't.' If you protect one thing and you simply displace the terrorist to a different threat, it's an exercise in futility," he said.
But wouldn't armed police at shopping malls and schools be a victory for the terrorists?
According to Ervin, "If there are visible measures in place that our government has taken to secure ourselves, I think the average American would take comfort from that."
Terrorism is frightening -- evil -- and there are bad guys out there who want to kill us. But perspective matters. In the three months after Sept. 11, a study found 1,000 Americans died because they were afraid to fly, and they drove instead.
The Rand Institute's Brian Michael Jenkins, author of "Unconquerable Nation," has studied terrorism for 40 years and said we should keep terrorism in perspective.
"We have had dark moments in our history, far darker moments than those we face today. We've come through wars, we've come through plagues, we've come through pandemics … the response to terrorism cannot be diving under the kitchen table and living in a state of fear. That's exactly what the terrorists are attempting to create."