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The Psychology of Terrorism: Things Not to Be Afraid Of

The Psychology of Terrorism: Things Not to Be Afraid OfI feel sorry for people who wake up every morning being afraid. I’m not talking about individuals who suffer from serious anxiety disorders or agoraphobia. Rather, I’m thinking of those who believe that terrorism is a legitimate fear that can actually be addressed by closing our borders and further restricting our rights.

It’s difficult to address terrorism because it appeals to our emotional mind. It is, by its very definition, unpredictable. Trying to stop, or even reduce, something that is so unpredictable means expending a lot of resources — and freedoms. And even then, you may have little to show for it.

I’m sensitive to the immigration issue, because my family has only been in America for four generations. We came from the Slavic region of Eastern Europe, and it’s possible my family on my mother’s side was Jewish (and converted to Catholicism in part to escape persecution).

Keeping immigrants and refugees out to stop the terrorists is a prime example of emotional-mind thinking. How would closing our borders have stopped the San Bernadino attack, perpetrated by an American-born resident? How would that have prevented the shooting at Ft. Hood? Or the Columbine shootings? Or the Sandy Hook shootings? (Is there any rationale to focus on one kind of mass shooting over others? Shouldn’t we be working to prevent all mass shootings?)

In a word, closing our borders to immigrants would not halt terrorism in America. Anyone who is selling you this malarky should not be someone you put much faith in, because “putting up walls” isn’t an answer to anything. Unless the question was, “How do you build a good prison?”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a country that bears many similarities to a prison.

Perspective is Everything

When a politician plays to your fears, they are playing to your emotional mind. They hope your rational mind doesn’t come back into the discussion to address and answer the fears. It’s very similar to the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) technique of coming up with rational responses to answer your irrational fears.

“Terrorists are everywhere! We need to stop them from coming into our country.”

Terrorists, by definition, will always be everywhere — that’s the nature of their focus and lives. As I just showed, you can’t stop them from coming into the country when they are already here (and, in some cases, were even born here). Walls won’t stop them. Background checks won’t stop them.

Remember that little war we fought in a few decades ago called World War II? Did you know that plenty of Jews were also of German heritage? What if we had said, “Sorry, no Jews allowed in the U.S. Since some of you are Germans too, you could be German spies or try and sabotage our war efforts.” We basically did that with those of Japanese heritage — a universally-acknowledged shameful chapter in our country’s history.1

“But if we don’t do something, maybe a terrorist will strike and kill me or my loved ones!”

In the grand scheme of your life, your chances of dying in a terrorist attack has increased every so slightly in the past year. But your risk is so minuscule, it’s of little value to spend much time thinking, much less worrying, about:

[A] rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million.

This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.

In other words, in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

You should be far more scared of getting into your car every day than you should be of a Muslim walking down the street.

“But the Muslim people are all in this together trying to kill us. We need to do something about these people. “

Nope, that’s not even close to the truth (but is the “truth” many scaremongers will invoke). Most Muslims (like most people of any organized religion) are peaceful folks, just wanting to practice their religion in peace and without interference. None of my Muslim friends has ever acted in any way other than as a friend.

Just like a tiny minority of Christians, there are a tiny minority of Islamists who believe violence is the only answer to the problems they see in the world. Daesh (ISIS) is one such group. We and our allies should work to help break up or significantly diminish the strength of this group. End of story.

Terrorism World Map

I’ll end with this great quote from Clinton Jenkin, who talks more about the psychology of terrorism:

Because each terrorist attack evokes anger and resolve, however, terrorists primarily achieve their goal of fear and intimidation through the threat of future attacks rather than the occurrence of previous ones. From a psychological perspective, the terrorism that has not yet happened is as important as the terrorism that just happened. […]

Terrorism – more specifically the threat of terrorism – has become a driving cultural and political force. Credible threat is the currency of terrorist organizations.

And, I would argue, the threat of terrorism is also the currency of politicians wishing to score easy points with the electorate.

Terrorism’s success is based upon fear. The more you fear terrorists, the more they are winning. The more you fear your fellow citizens, the more they are winning. The more you let politicians lead you to believe there is a simple or easy answer to the problem (“Close the borders,” “Carpet-bomb ISIS,” etc.), the more they are winning.

Fear is a powerful emotion that blots out much reason. Don’t let it blot out the reason in you.


For further information

Clinton Jenkin: Risk Perception and Terrorism: Applying the Psychometric Paradigm

Reason Magazine: How Scared of Terrorism Should You Be?

2015 Terrorism & Political Violence Risk Map — A Guide (PDF)

The Psychology of Terrorism: Things Not to Be Afraid Of


  1. And, to be fair to history, the United States shamefully resisted taking in more than a pittance of Jewish refugees fleeing WWII until late in the war. []

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of Terrorism: Things Not to Be Afraid Of. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Dec 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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