The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why do we freak out about terrorism, anyway? Here’s why we shouldn’t.

There’s a new poll out today from the Public Religion Research Institute showing that nearly half of Americans say they’re either very worried or somewhat worried that they or a member of their family will be a victim of terrorism.

You might say that’s understandable, given how much terrorism has dominated the news recently. But the truth is, they’re wrong. On a national scale, terrorism isn’t a threat, it’s a nuisance. We’re having a collective freakout about it right now, and that freakout serves the interests of those who are encouraging it. But we need to take a step back and look at just how dangerous terrorism really is.

Here’s a question we all ought to ask ourselves: When it comes to terrorism, what exactly are we afraid of? I know it seems self-evident — terrorism is scary! — but what exactly is it? If you try to articulate an answer, you quickly realize how infrequently we actually ask the question.

The simplest answer, of course, is that we’re afraid that terrorists will kill people. Okay, so how many people? According to the New America Foundation, since 9/11 there have been 45 Americans killed in jihadist terrorist attacks, and 48 Americans killed in right-wing terrorist attacks. Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that even though these two numbers are comparable, we don’t treat right-wing terrorism as something that requires any kind of policy response or even sustained attention. But you can’t argue that jihadi terrorism is something to be concerned about and afraid of because of the damage it’s been doing. An average of about three people killed per year in a country of 320 million is next to nothing.

So if it’s not because terrorists have managed to kill a lot of people in the last few years, are we petrified of terrorism because terrorists could kill lots of people in the near future? That’s possible. But how many could they kill? Another dozen, like in the San Bernardino shooting? A hundred? Five hundred? Since September 11 we’ve made it much harder to pull off a large-scale, spectacular attack. Terrorists aren’t going to be able to hijack airplanes and use them as missiles. It’s possible that there could be repeats  of the San Bernardino shootings, and that’s something to be concerned about. But we have mass shootings in America all the time. Why — again exactly — should we be more concerned about a repeat of San Bernardino than a repeat of Aurora, where nearly the same number of people (12) were killed?

Both were terrible, and both could happen again. But only in the case of San Bernardino does the event cause large portions of the public and elected officials to contemplate sweeping policy change, even up to and including the idea of starting another full-scale Middle East war because we’re so frightened. (Anytime there’s a mass shooting, Democrats push for gun control measures; but Republicans only call for a major policy response when it’s terrorism.)

There are some people who would argue that even if terrorists haven’t killed a lot of Americans lately, and even if it’s unlikely they’d be able to kill truly large numbers of Americans in the future, we still need to freak out about terrorism because a group like the Islamic State represents an “existential threat” to America. But if you get specific in the questions you ask, it becomes obvious that this idea is utterly deranged.

Back in the Cold War, the Soviet Union presented a true existential threat to the United States. It had enough nuclear missiles pointed at us to kill every man, woman, and child in America (and on the rest of the planet to boot). The Islamic State has no such capability. Is the Islamic State going to launch an invasion of the United States, sweep through the nation from Manhattan all the way to Seattle, take control of the whole country, and force America to live under its brutal rule? Of course not. Is it going to launch a coup from inside our government and raise its flag over the White House? No.

So what exactly is it we’re afraid the Islamic State will do to America? Right now I’m not talking about what it could do to Iraq or Syria, because that’s a very different question. What could it do to America? The absolute worst it could do is launch some successful attacks that might kill a dozen or even a hundred of us. And that would be awful. But about thirty Americans are murdered every day with guns, and a hundred die every day in car accidents. Eighty-three Americans die every day in falls, but we haven’t declared a “War on Falling,” and nobody tells pollsters that their biggest fear is that someone in their family will suffer a fatal fall.

If you actually force yourself to think in specific terms about the substance of the threat the Islamic State poses to us, you have to admit that the actual threat is miniscule. So why are we having a national freakout about it now? The answer, I think, lies in the presidential campaign, particularly in the Republican primary. You have a bunch of news organizations following around a bunch of candidates who know that the way to gain the support of their base is to prey on that base’s fears and prejudices. Add in the fact that the front-runner is a demagogic bigot, and you quickly get into a cycle of hysteria: a terrorist attack happens, it’s extensively covered in the media, the candidates seize on it to propose ever more radical policy changes (Keep out refugees! Put troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria! Keep out all the Muslims!) all the while proclaiming that the threat from terrorism is horrifyingly large and growing larger. The media report on their statements, voters get more nervous, and the candidates respond by feeding the panic.

Even outside their campaign coverage, the media give enormous attention to an event like San Bernardino, spending weeks analyzing not just the occurrence itself but who the perpetrators were, what motivated them, what they had for breakfast on the day of the attack, and everything else that can be uncovered. This coverage isn’t problematic in and of itself, but its sheer volume serves to reinforce the idea that terrorism is a huge threat that we all need to be terribly afraid of.

But it isn’t, and we don’t. We should be concerned, and we should take reasonable steps to minimize the risk we face from terrorism, just as we do with all the other risks we face. But right now we’re acting like a bunch of cowards. It’s long past time we got a hold of ourselves.