If I asked you to define what it means for a terrorist group to be a “threat” to the United States, what specifically would you say? If it seems like a strange question, that’s only because nobody ever asks it. But when we say that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is a threat to us, what do we mean? Keep that question in mind as we look at this new CNN poll:
Americans have grown increasingly wary of ISIS over the past six months, but their confidence in the U.S.’ ability to combat the extremist group is waning, according to a new CNN/ORC poll.
The poll finds fully 80% of Americans say ISIS poses a serious threat to the United States — a steady increase from September, when 63% said the same.
Only 6% of respondents in the new poll say ISIS isn’t a serious threat. A large majority (56%) characterize the group as a “very serious” threat to the U.S., while one-quarter say the threat posed by ISIS is “fairly serious,” and 14% say it’s “somewhat serious.”
So 94 percent of Americans think that the Islamic State is at least a somewhat serious threat. Now to return to our question: What does that mean? Does that mean that there is a real possibility that the Islamic State will a) launch attacks on the United States that b) kill large numbers of us? Their interest in and ability to do that, we should be clear, have no relationship whatsoever to how grisly the acts they now commit in Iraq and Syria are.
It isn’t hard to figure out why so many people think the Islamic State threatens the United States. When you see horrifying descriptions and pictures of beheadings, your emotional response can overwhelm any kind of rational reaction. To many people, there’s a large undifferentiated mass of scary foreigners out there, and any news related to terrorism or war anywhere means that we’re more endangered than we were. And then, of course, we have politicians who go around telling any camera they can that we’re all about to die; give props to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for telling a three-year-old girl, “Your world is on fire.”
But guess what: Our world isn’t on fire. Yet it’s almost impossible to say in our contemporary debates that a hostile country or terrorist group isn’t a threat, especially if you’re a politician. Claim that the Islamic State — horrible though it may be — isn’t much of a threat to us, and you’ll be branded naïve at best, a terrorist sympathizer at worst.
Now, let’s entertain a truly radical notion: Even if the Islamic State could launch a successful terrorist attack in the United States, that still wouldn’t make them much of a threat. How many Americans could they kill? A dozen? A hundred? That would be horrible. But car accidents kill almost a hundred Americans each and every day.
It’s easy to see why Republicans would want to make Americans as afraid as possible of the Islamic State: The emotional state of fear creates support for more belligerent policies and more use of military force, which are the things Republicans favor. So whatever they actually believe about the Islamic State, they have an interest in everyone being as afraid as possible. And the creation of that fear is, of course, what terrorism is all about: The spectacle and the reaction it produces are the whole point.
For their part, Democrats may argue that a different set of policies is more likely to defeat the Islamic State, but you won’t hear them say that the group doesn’t actually threaten the United States in any meaningful way — not when 94 percent of Americans are convinced otherwise. But we should try to see if we can simultaneously hold three separate thoughts in our heads:
1. The Islamic State has done ghastly things.
2. We should work to eliminate them in any way we can.
3. Even so, they are not actually much of a threat to the United States.
The same people who want everyone to constantly proclaim the United States’ awesomeness often act as though we’re a nation on the verge of destruction, so weak and vulnerable are we in the face of knife-wielding masked men thousands of miles away. But we aren’t on the verge of destruction. The Islamic State presents a profound challenge, because they are bringing misery wherever they go and uprooting them will be difficult and complex. But that isn’t the same as saying that we here in the United States should live in a state of fear.