What Frightens Us? And Why? Threat Perception During and After COVID-19

Featuring Eugene Gholz, Rose McDermott, and Christopher A. Preble

Since September 11, 2001, Americans have been fixated on the threat posed by international terrorism. Such fears have persisted even though there has not been a major terrorist incident on U.S. soil in nearly 19 years and, statistically speaking, a person’s chance of being killed by a terrorist remains vanishingly low. Generally speaking, the national security establishment was quick to elevate counterterrorism as a top priority post‐​9/​11, and it remains a key area of concern.

As COVID-19 slowly spread from China to the rest of the world, some dismissed it as no more dangerous than the seasonal flu. As the number of infected rose, and deaths from the disease mounted, skeptics noted that a person was far more likely to die in an automobile accident or that other diseases still claimed far more lives in a given month or year—though that is unlikely to be the case in 2020.

Meanwhile, concern over traditional security threats persist. The U.S. military remains poised to deter Chinese and Russian actions in East Asia or Europe, actively challenges Iran and North Korea in their respective regions, and has even ramped up counternarcotics operations in the Caribbean. The U.S. national security establishment is also focused on blocking or responding to state and nonstate actor’s activities in space and cyberspace.

What explains public fears and the government’s response to them? To what extent does national security strategy shape public attitudes—or is it mostly shaped by them?

And how will strategic planners prioritize the allocation of resources between traditional and nontraditional threats post–COVID-19?