Radical Islamic terrorism — a phrase that may not have been coined by President Donald Trump, but is one he frequently uses and has employed since the early days of his campaign — has managed to convince a vast portion of America that it is the greatest threat currently facing the nation.
This idea not only ushered in Trump’s presidency; it has made way for bold, anti-Muslim executive orders and overreaching legislation — like the banning of travelers from six Muslim-majority countries. There is no doubt that terrorism is a threat to the world, though the radical Islamic variety usually occurs outside of America. Is terrorism really as colossal of a threat to Americans as it is so widely perceived?
Not so silently in the backdrop sits something much more statistically deadly to Americans than terrorism: gun violence.
Certainly, gun violence can fall into the greater category of terrorism, but in America, the fear of gun violence is generally overlooked when compared to the fear of terrorism. Republican policymakers’ efforts to fight gun control vehemently and often underscore and play off this fear.
As many Americans are aware, the National Rifle Association, or NRA — the biggest lobby for gun manufacturers — is politically aligned with conservative members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as some Republican governors and state legislators. This cycle of persuasion — propaganda followed by deregulation followed by gun sales which then fund the propaganda — has effectively convinced many Americans that a consistent lack of gun regulations is in no way responsible for the many gun-related deaths across America each year.
However, another phenomenon plays into the disproportionately high fear of terrorism in the United States, and it is psychological in nature.
In the span of a full decade, between the years 2005 and 2015, jihadists killed 94 people, while 301,797 others died in gun-related incidents and not at the hands of jihadists. Given that statistic, it seems unlikely that Right-wing and pro-gun propaganda alone could convince the American public that radical Islamic terrorism is their most significant threat. The major driving force enhancing this popular American fear is something called risk perception, a psychological human phenomenon enhanced by propaganda.
Risk perception is the subjective judgment humans make about the characteristics and severity of a risk.
Past research has determined that when people make decisions about health and safety, we do not base these decisions on the highest or most urgent risk factors.
But What Exactly is Risk?
The term is defined based on its relation to the agency describing it and the consequences in question.
For example, the U.S. National Library of Medicine within the National Center for Biotechnology Information defines risk as “hazard times exposure equals consequence.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which discusses risk assessment as it relates to environmental threats on its website, has its own definition: The agency defines risk as “the chance of harmful effects to human health or to ecological systems.” In this case, the focus is solely on human health.
In layman’s terms, risk is simply “the probability of something bad occurring.”
So How Does Risk Perception Affect Americans’ Hierarchy of Fears?
We often assume that those who succumb to a risk perception gap do so out of ignorance; yet, studies have shown that risk perception is a typical component of humans’ hardwired ability to quickly assess threats.
Some view this notion psychologically, some anthropologically, and some interdisciplinarily.
From a psychological perspective, people have a tendency to use cognitive heuristics — or mental shortcuts, as opposed to algorithmic thinking — leaving us prone to lapses in logic and cognitive biases.
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