Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Crime Vs. Terror

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 18, 2013

Security Hero

Last night at the Hammer Museum….


More than a trillion dollars has been spent on homeland security since 9/11, yet two amateur terrorists—with homemade bombs that cost $100—were able to shut down Boston for a week. John Mueller, author of Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland SecurityJeffrey Simon, author of Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat; and William Arkin, co-author of Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, evaluate whether the enormous cost of security is making us any safer.


These three gentleman spoke about how fear generated from terrorism has led to billions of dollars being spent on homeland security, under the direction of both democratic and republican governments. Fear gets dollars was how I understood the process, even though, statistically speaking we should be spending our money on more likely threats to our existence, such as motor vehicle accidents. All crime generates fear, so Jeffrey Simon posed the question about the difference between crime and terrorism. This question intrigued me because I think the difference is the extent to which fear is generated. A neighborhood murder creates fear in that area, but the Boston Marathon bombing creates fear in the world. The internet has made terrorism more potent, both in gathering together terrorists, and spreading the fear at rapid clip. Still, Mr. Simon reminded me that antisocial behaviors create a continuum of fear, and as such, terrorism is not so easily defined. The generation of fear gives power, and so fear, seems to be the psychological reward, for terrorist behavior. That said, if we could respond to these crimes without getting scared, then maybe we could diminish the motivation of the perpetrator. Spending a lot of money on a low-likelihood event seems to reward the criminal. This seems to be the world of forensic psychologists, trying to understand the thinking of the evil-doer. Once again, understanding can change how we allocate our resources. So, we have another argument for the value of digging into mental states.

6 Responses to “Crime Vs. Terror”

  1. Jon said

    Let me take this topic and segue to a related riff. Shirah, you have correctly stated, “The generation of fear gives power, and so fear, seems to be the psychological reward, for terrorist behavior.” Sadly, there is another effect that terrorist behavior can claim as well from the generation of fear – losses of the Fourth and First Amendments. The Fourth Amendment which guard against unreasonable searches and seizures has been and continues to be whittled away by the sad response to fear via “The Patriot Act.” Encroachments on First Amendments rights follow along. Your next statement was “if we could respond to these crimes without getting scared, then maybe we could diminish the motivation of the perpetrator.” We would also be able to be the country we were meant and designed to be by the framers of the Country, Constitution and Bill of Rights. In the oft quoted words of Benjamin Franklin, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

  2. Ashana M said

    Max Abrahms explains, “The preponderance of empirical and theoretical evidence is that terrorists are rational people who use terrorism primarily to develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists.” Most groups are motivated by pursuit of a deep and meaningful ideal that provides purpose for the lives of members rather than a simple desire to harm others. In that sense, terror groups function much like religious cults. We brought casseroles around. They build bombs. The goal is fundamentally the same. More than most people, terrorists are striving to be good. If that is the case, whether we are more or less afraid is unlikely to make any difference.

    (For his full paper:

    • Hi Ashana,
      Thank you for introducing me to the work of Max Abrahms. He explains the fellowship in a terrorist organization and I can understand that. The issue of fear, as you suggest, maybe less relevant to the terrorist, but more relevant to political decision making. Thanks again.

  3. Shelly said

    Okay, Shirah, I’ll bite. What do you intend to offer as a solution, instead of playing to the hands of the terrorists? They do intend to instill fear wherever they go. That is their agenda. The casualties they cause are the by-product. They don’t know their victims–it’s not personal. The victims are part of their statement they make to the government–“do it our way, or we will kill and mame hundreds if not thousands of your citizens.” So are you saying that the government should not invest millions of dollars to profile the terrorists and stop them in their tracks before they do what they do?

    • Okay. Shelly. Thanks for biting. In a way, I am saying that. Statistics need to be understood. Money should go to the most prevalent threats to our health and safety, and not to the threats which give us the most fear.

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