Lecture 13: Fear, Terrorism and Political Crime

Welcome to the thirteenth lecture in Fall 2016’s undergraduate criminology course at the University of Maine at Augusta. This week follows a focus on violent crime last week and asks you to read Chapter 12 in your Hagan text, an interesting mix blending discussions of spoken dissent, civil disobedience, obstruction and fear-generating violence. This lecture augments your text with an update to the section of your chapter devoted to “Illegal Surveillance and Disruption,” and more generally with the consideration of the thread that ties the disparate acts in Chapter 12 together — whether admirable or abominable, these are acts that have the purpose of generating government and public reactions, reactions that can lead to the commission of further crimes. Central among the reactions by members of the public and by members of government is fear. Fear of spectacular or everyday crime strongly shapes the way we live our lives, even if we are never the direct victims of a crime. The very thought of victimization by murder, assault, burglary or car theft generates significant fear in some people, but not in others. Our lecture focuses on what factors might explain these differences in fear of crime, and how our responses to feelings of fear can lead to further social troubles.

Three years ago, bombs exploded in Boston, very close by to Maine.  According to data from the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database:

  • In 2015,  terrorist attacks killed 790 people in 581 incidents in Egypt.
  • According to the same database, 2487 people were killed in 967 incidents in Iraq in the last three months of 2015 alone.
  • In France during the year 2015, terrorist attacks killed 158 people in 35 incidents.
  • In the United States in 2015, 44 people were killed by terrorists in 38 incidents.

Together, these events bring the question of terrorism into sharp relief.  In the choice of the word to describe these kinds of acts, “terrorism” explains the goal — not to directly damage a society but to indirectly damage it by creating terror (a sharp fear), that then leads a society to harm itself. To return to the example of the Boston bombing, the bomb itself directly killed 3 people.  The shutdown of Boston as law enforcement searched for the perpetrators cost an estimated $333 million, money that in itself is worthless in comparison to a human life but that could have been spent in so many very meaningful ways — to build scores of schools, or to provide health care to more than fifteen thousand families for a year, for instance. Those costs are real and impact many lives — our fear kills. The cost of our social response to terrorism makes terrorists much more damaging to our social health than they ever could be by themselves.

The sections of this week’s lecture are:

Fear of Crime

“Is there any area near where you live — that is, within a mile — where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?” This is the text of a question that’s been asked of Americans by the Gallup poll since 1964, and throughout that time roughly a third of us have answered “yes”:

Gallup poll item from 1964-2012: Fear of walking alone in neighborhood at night

Despite data from the Uniform Crime Reports and the National Crime Victimization Survey that show our violent crime rates to be at historic lows, Americans have consistently reported every year (in the same Gallup Poll) that crime has worsened in the United States compared to the previous year:

Gallup Poll, 1989 to 2015: Is there More Crime the United States than there Was a Year Ago?

Curiously, poll respondents report a fair amount less fear of crime in their local community, the places they actually experience in their daily lives. In the most recent Gallup poll on the subject completed in October of 2015, 24% fewer respondents reported the perception of a crime rise in their area than those reporting the perception of a crime rise in the nation as a whole:

Gallup Poll, 1972 to 2015: Is there more crime in your area than there was a year ago?

It is the other places than our own in America, the places in America where we don’t live but the places we hear stories about, that cause us an especially heightened fear. Although a majority of us do not feel that crime is on the increase where we live, a majority feel crime must be on the increase elsewhere, somewhere where we hear the stories of crime are dire. We are scared somewhat of our hometown, but we are much more scared of the “otherwhere” that we inaccurately imagine is much, much worse than here, wherever “here” happens to be. In Maine, that dangerous criminal “otherwhere” tends to be described (inaccurately) as Lewiston.

Social Contact With Crime and Fear of Crime
There is also some evidence that social contact with a crime can increase the fear of a crime. McConnell (1997), Lee et al (2012) and Skogan (1987) cite evidence that those who know someone who has been victimized by a crime are more likely to fear being victimized themselves. The question of “vicarious victimization” is an important one because the social contact that leads to the vicarious feeling of victimization happens through a network “ripple” effect that can quickly encompass many people. Here’s how the “ripple effect” works:

  • Bernard et al (2001) have determined that the typical person is casually acquainted with 290 people.
  • People who are involved in an event of size X will therefore be acquainted with X*290 people.
  • That X*290 number will count some the same people twice or three times (since two different people in the same event X will often be acquainted with of the same people). By measuring groups and events over and over, Bernard et al (2001) figured out that if you divide X*290 by 1.6, you get an accurate count of the number of unique people acquainted with someone in an event.

The result is that events quite small in number can appear to be “everywhere” due to our perception of reality through a few rounds of social connection to those events. If X*290 equals the number of people who are acquainted with someone in an event, then (X*290)*290 equals the number of people who are acquainted with someone who is acquainted with someone in an event. This last number can get pretty large — and it’s the kind of number we refer to when we say that our Aunt Gertie is friends with someone whose brother died in the attacks of 9/11/01. It makes the danger of the event seem closer, more real, more imminent.

On this subject, read this March 2013 article in the Kennebec Journal to learn about activists hosted by the University of Maine at Augusta who called for gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook, Connecticut shooting at the end of 2012. I preface the following by saying that of course the death of any child due to violence in school is tragic, as is the death of any child for any reason, period. But how connected do we feel to it?

It’s interesting to me sociologically that according to this article (McMillan 2013), one of the social movement participants at the University of Maine at Augusta was a person who knew someone who knew someone who died at Sandy Hook — and she cited that fact as a reason for showing up to UMA to demonstrate for change. The probability that someone in America died at Sandy Hook is about 8 in 100 million — vanishingly small, so small that a typical person when confronted with the number wouldn’t consider such a risk worrying large. The probability that someone in America knew someone who died at Sandy Hook (at the level of acquaintance, as described in the KJ article; we have on average 290 acquaintances) is also small, but not quite as vanishingly small: about 1.5 in 100 thousand. But the probability that someone in America knew someone who knew someone who died at Sandy Hook is quite a bit larger: 0.27%, or 2.7 in a thousand.

The chance that a particular child in America will be killed in a school shooting in a given year is smaller than the chance of a massive asteroid strike. But if you bring 100 people to a demonstration on campus, by chance alone it’s likely that one of them will have a story to tell about an indirect connection to the Sandy Hook shooting. We’ll walk away feeling as though the criminal event is close and pressing, even though the numerical risk to ourselves or our children is very, very small. As a result, one in four parents (returning to the Gallup Poll) report feeling worried that their child will be harmed at school…

Gallup Poll, 2000-2015: How Often Do You Worry about a School-Aged Child of Yours Being Physically Harmed at School?

… even though by actual counts of incidents schools are by a considerable margin the safest place that children can be. It takes a few years for the National Center for Educational Statistics to publish school safety data, but the latest available data takes us up to the 2013-2014 school year.  The latest available data show us two trends. First, U.S. children are far safer from being killed than they were a generation ago. Second, during the whole period, kids have been far safer from homicide in school than out of school.  The fears of attacks against children we report are out of proportion to the risks they face.

Homicide Rate of School-Aged Youth, in and out of school, 1992-2014

Fear of Terrorism

All criminal acts send out ripples through our social networks. But which acts will be most noticed by us? Which acts will we especially fear? In 2015, the most recently completed year, two sets of unfortunate events occurred in two cities. The first event you probably know about: 130 people were killed in Paris, with a number of others injured. The second event you probably haven’t heard of: 147 were killed at Kenya’s Garissa University, with a number of others injured. The first event sparked international condemnation, special radio call-in shows, calls for policy changes in Europe and the United States, and multiple declarations by presidential candidates in the United States. The second event sparked none of these.

Both events resulted in dead and injured people, but only one of the two events prompted widespread shock and terror. Why the difference? Security consultant Bruce Schneier (2007) has compiled the following list of “heuristics” (which I entirely quote below) — quick judgments by which the human brain judges whether an event is a risk or not. Occasionally, these heuristics result in an overestimate or an underestimate of risk. How many of these exaggerated risks characterize the crimes we focus on? How many of these downplayed risks characterize the crimes we ignore?

Exaggerated Risks Downplayed Risks
Spectacular Pedestrian
Rare Common
Personified Anonymous
Beyond one’s control More under control
Externally imposed Taken willingly
Talked about Not discussed
Intentional or man-made Natural
Immediate Long-term or diffuse
Sudden Evolving slowly over time
Affecting them personally Affecting others
New and unfamiliar Familiar
Uncertain Well understood
Directed against their children Directed toward themselves
Morally offensive Morally desirable
Entirely without redeeming features Associated with some ancillary benefit
Not like their current situation Like their current situation

(Source: quoted from Bruce Schneier (2007))

The response of fear is not rational, but rather based on the emergence sudden, strange, unexpected, highly visible and highly discussed events. As your own findings in the first of two class papers this semester demonstrate, we should not mistake the often-discussed for the often-occurring. A recent volume of International Journal of Rural Criminology provides another example of the mismatch between estimates of risk of crime and actual risk of crime as particularly applied to judgments about terrorism. David C. May, Joe Herbert and Kelly Cline of Eastern Kentucky University join Ashley Nellis of The Sentencing Project in an article entitled “Predictors of Fear and Risk of Terrorism in a Rural State” (May et al 2011). In this article, the authors studied 1,617 residents of Kentucky, a majority of whom reported being “afraid someone in Kentucky will be a victim in a terrorist attack.” Interestingly, residents of rural areas estimated a greater risk that they themselves would be the victim of a terrorist attack, even though urban areas are actually attacked more often (May et al 2011).

Government Crime in Response to Terror

Frank Hagan’s textbook section on “Illegal Surveillance and Disruption” has been quickly overtaken by events on the ground. While that section of the text is focused on massive surveillance and intimidation of American dissidents, protesters and everyday citizens in the 1960s, we no longer need go back so far in history. Such activities are being carried out by the United States government in the present day. Declaring that “You need the haystack to find the needle,” National Security Agency chief and U.S. military General Keith Alexander has confirmed that the NSA has been running a massive program to collect the phone contact, e-mail contact, Internet search and visits to major Internet sites by hundreds of millions of people without warrants or suspicion of any wrongdoing. Members of the same agency have admitted listening in on phone sex sessions between overseas journalists and deployed members of the military and their spouses. National Security Agency plans to collect and reveal the porn-surfing habits of non-violent political opponents of the U.S. government in order to discredit those opponents were revealed just last week, prompting comparisons to the COINTELPRO program of the 1960s that your textbook discusses as long-ago history. All this activity is being justified as a response to the threat “of valid terrorist targets,” but surveillance data is also being shared with the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Justice Department, the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security — not for catching terrorists, but for finding everyday criminals in the “haystack” of everyday Americans, even though such warrantless techniques for collecting evidence violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

History repeats itself. If we consider the intrusive crimes of past governments to be “unthinkable” in modern days, we do so perhaps at our own peril.


Bernard, H. Russell, Peter D. Killworth, Eugene C. Johnsen, Gene A. Shelley and Christopher McCarty. 2001. “Estimating the Ripple Effect of a Disaster.” Connections 24(2): 18-22.

Hale, Chris. 1996. “Fear of Crime: A Review of the Literature.” International Journal of Victimology 4: 79-150.

May, David C., Joe Herbert, Kelly Cline and Ashley Nellis. 2011. “Predictors of Fear and Risk of Terrorism in a Rural State.” International Journal of Rural Criminology 1: 1-22.

McConnell, Elizabeth H. 1997. “Fear of Crime on Campus: A Study of a Southern University.” Journal of Security Administration 20(2): 22-46.

McMillan, Susan. 2013. “Area Leaders, Residents Gather at the Capital for Gun Control.” Kennebec Journal March 28.

Schneier, Bruce. 2007. “The Psychology of Security.” Communications of the ACM 50(5): 128.

Skogan, Wesley G. 1987. “The Impact of Victimization on Fear.” Crime & Delinquency 33(1): 135-154.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *