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TerrorismHow victims of terror are remembered distorts perceptions of safety

By Richard Lachmann

Published 30 August 2016

From 2002 through 2015, eighty Americans were killed in terrorist attacks. The fifty-seven killed in 2016 almost equals the total of the previous thirteen years. In 2013, the most recent year for which there are comprehensive statistics from the FBI, 13,716 Americans were murdered, the equivalent of an Orlando massacre every thirty-two hours. In 2014, 32,675 Americans died in car accidents. In other words, the fifty-seven Americans who died in terrorist attacks in 2016 were equal to 0.42 percent of all murders and 0.17 percent of all traffic deaths. Why do the terrorist attacks get so much media coverage? Why is fear of terrorism a major issue in the current election? The reason: victims of domestic terrorism are viewed as casualties in the War on Terror. A relatively few deaths thus become manifestations of a war come home to America. Those few highly publicized deaths provoke levels of fear and anger that make it difficult to think clearly about the actual causes of these crimes and conceive of governmental policies that actually might make prevent future attacks.

Are Americans safe from terrorism?

Forty-nine dead in Orlando, five in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge in 2016. Twelve dead in San Bernardino, three at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and nine at a church in Charleston in 2015.

In addition, Americans watched ample news coverage of the attacks in Nice and Brussels in 2016, and two far more deadly attacks in Paris in 2015. Jihadist attacks are up dramatically in Europe, from four in 2014 to seventeen in 2015. And, there are even more frequent deaths from terrorism elsewhere in the world, which usually receive less intense coverage in the United States.

From 2002 through 2015, eighty Americans were killed in terrorist attacks. The fifty-seven killed in 2016 almost equals the total of the previous thirteen years. The totality of attacks worldwide can give Americans the impression that they are in escalating danger. An evolution in the way we remember the war dead since Vietnam may be one reason these deaths take up so much space in the public imagination.

In comparison to overall murders and auto accident fatalities, the deaths from terrorism are less significant. In 2013, the most recent year for which there are comprehensive statistics from the FBI, 13,716 Americans were murdered, the equivalent of an Orlando massacre every thirty-two hours.

In 2014, 32,675 Americans died in car accidents. In other words, the fifty-seven Americans who died in terrorist attacks in 2016 were equal to 0.42 percent of all murders and 0.17 percent of all traffic deaths.

Why do the terrorist attacks get so much media coverage? Why is fear of terrorism a major issue in the current election? A Pew Research Center pollshows 80 percent of Americans see terrorism as “very important” to their vote this year, second only to the economy at 84 percent.

Framing terror
When an unusual and seemingly random tragedy strikes, some may try to give it meaning by relating it to other, more familiar and historic horrors. When the Bush administration decided after 9/11 to label its response a “War on Terror,” it gave the American public a template for understanding future attacks.