Times Square and the Availability Heuristic

By Mike Dorf

How should you react to the news that Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-born U.S. citizen who is the chief suspect in the botched Times Square van-bombing, apparently received bomb-making training from radicals in western Pakistan?  Here are a few possibilities:

1) Feel terrified because the long-awaited export to the U.S. of tactics used widely in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere has finally arrived.

2) No surprise.  Shahzad is, after all, from Pakistan.  Although most Pakistanis are even more troubled by (because more affected by) street bombings than Americans, there are strongholds of virulent anti-Americanism in large parts of Pakistan.  Isn't that the most logical place for a Pakistani-American intent on bombing Americans to go to get training?

3) Breathe a sigh of relief.  Someone who had received bomb-making training actually bought non-explosive fertilizer?  Either their training or the quality of their recruits is terrible.  If this is the best they can do, then the capacity of anti-American terrorist groups has been seriously degraded since 9/11.

With an important caveat to which I'll return momentarily, it strikes me that reactions 2 and 3 are sensible, but that 1 is likely to dominate because of the "availability heuristic," i.e., the tendency of the mind to exaggerate fears that are salient because "available" to the mind through their recency.  (I discussed the availability heuristic, also sometimes called the "salience heuristic" or the "vividness heuristic" in a post-Katrina FindLaw column.)  No person thinking rationally about the subject would have actually learned anything about the intentions of anti-American terrorists from the fact of the failed Times Square bombing.  We knew from 9/11 itself, from the Madrid and London bombings, and from the arrests of various other plotters that some number of foreign and home-grown terrorists would attack Western targets, including, especially, targets in the U.S.  But so long as none of these post-9/11 plots targeting the U.S. succeeded, we could put it out of our conscious minds.  Shahzad's plot didn't achieve its chief objects, but it did succeed in producing a vivid image: smoke coming out of a potentially incendiary van.  That was enough to make the fear of domestic terrorism salient again.

Now the caveat about proposition 3).  The fact that Shahzad was an incompetent terrorist does not necessarily mean that the next guy will be.  And even an incompetent terrorist can inflict serious damage.  Had the NYPD not intervened when it did, the van would likely have caused a serious fire, if not a gigantic explosion.  Thus, I want to be clear that conclusion 3) is not a call for law enforcement to let its guard down.

Nor is reaction 3) even a suggestion that we'll be okay in the long run.  U.S. military ventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan may succeed in disrupting the capacity of existing networks of anti-American militants but they also give rise to new terrorists.  Donald Rumsfeld was wrong about many things but he was right when he said in 2003 that we didn't know whether U.S. military efforts were killing, capturing and deterring more terrorists than were being recruited in response to our efforts.  We still don't know.  Maybe reaction 1) isn't so irrational after all.