All Commentary
Monday, November 16, 2015

Paul Krugman and John McCain on Terror, Reason, and Courage

We must not allow fear to control us

I don’t say this much, but Paul Krugman has a very good column in today’s New York Times. It’s on the horrible events in France and is titled “Fearing Fear Itself.” The title is, of course, a takeoff on the FDR line in his first inaugural address: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Here are two key paragraphs:

So what was Friday’s attack about? Killing random people in restaurants and at concerts is a strategy that reflects its perpetrators’ fundamental weakness. It isn’t going to establish a caliphate in Paris.
What it can do, however, is inspire fear — which is why we call it terrorism, and shouldn’t dignify it with the name of war.
The point is not to minimize the horror. It is, instead, to emphasize that the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire. And it’s crucial to realize that there are multiple ways the response can go wrong.

Paul and I might disagree on how much dignity there is in war, but put that aside.

The passage above reminds me of John Mueller’s excellent article “A False Sense of Insecurity?” in the Fall 2004 issue of Regulation. Specifically, this:

Throughout all this, there is a perspective on terrorism that has been very substantially ignored. It can be summarized, somewhat crudely, as follows:
  • Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.
  • The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.

Mueller continues:

Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself.
Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

Elsewhere in the article, Mueller writes:

What we need is more pronouncements like the one in a recent book by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.):
“Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That’s not a life worth living, is it?”

Ed. note: McCain’s quote comes from his book Why Courage Matters.

Cross-posted from Econlog.

  • David Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund) and blogs at