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The Threat of Terrorism

Coping with fear of the unknown

The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate…”

Incidents of terrorism in our world have become too familiar, too close to home, and for many of us, a source of high anxiety. Statistically, we are unlikely to die at the hands of terrorists, but despite the odds, the threat weighs heavily on our minds.

When a horrific act is committed, our natural response is to think about the probability of becoming victims ourselves. The problem with this line of thinking, according to experts, is that we’re likely to miscalculate risk based on several illogical considerations. Immediately following a terrible event, for example, people tend to overestimate the likelihood of similar occurrences.

We often think that there is more risk when something very bad has just happened, according to Dr. Robert L. Leahy, Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical School. “The recency of an event leads to increased fear of its reoccurrence,” he says. Furthermore, we’re likely to overestimate risk when an incident is dramatic and its graphic images are displayed over and over again in the news. “We do not see pictures of skin cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, car accidents, or the effects of obesity or alcoholism,” points out Leahy. “Yet these illnesses are far more dangerous and kill far more people.”

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