I am not afraid of terrorism. The fact that one Nigerian student almost blew up a plane but failed illustrates how rare it is for a terror attempt to get that close to success. To be sure, it’s good that this is a lesson to make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated, but it’s clear that despite many holes in the system, not too many terrorists are willing and able to even make such an attempt. The threats facing Americans are far less than those facing Italians in the 80s from the red brigades, the British in the heyday of the IRA, or the Spanish back when ETA was a real Basque movement rather than an organized crime syndicate.
Let’s take some other statistics. Traffic deaths have reached record lows. In 2008 they were less than 40,000 for the entire country. That’s a steady decline form the 50,000 range between the late sixties and 1980. That is the equivalent of blowing up well over 100 airplanes, or repeating 9-11 about 13 times. Tobacco causes 435,000 annual deaths, alcohol over 80,000, there are 30,000 or so suicides, and if we had even slightly healthier diets and exercise habits the lives saved would be in the hundreds of thousands per year.
How many terrorist deaths on American soil in 2009? One deranged sniper at Ft. Hood killed a handful of people. Perhaps there was a radical anti-abortion bombing or two. But otherwise, terrorism is so far down the list that it is irrational to be afraid of terrorism, at least from a statistical level.
Yet to judge from the hyperbolic language coming from much of the right and many on the left, Barack Obama “isn’t keeping Americans safe” and that we need to fight a true war on terror. Despite the tiny rate of terror attacks, the fact that Islamic extremism is the primary motivation for terror attempts against the US, some think we should profile all Muslims, and there is no shortage of pundits denigrating Islam. Fear is a powerful emotion, if you can use it to your political advantage, it will take you far — and will dampen the rational reflection of those in the grip of fear.
However, before completely dismissing the fear mongering, there are a couple of points that need to be addressed. First, statistics about the past say little about the future, though year after year terror deaths in the US remain very low. One can imagine fantasies of major loss of life — nuclear terrorism, bioterrorism, etc. — but so far there is little evidence that any of this is likely. The potential that terrorists could use such weapons is cause for concern; efforts to reduce that potential are rational. Having real fear that this is going to happen — an emotional state of fear — is not rational.
Second, many of the causes of death above are due to choices made. We choose to drive, knowing the risks. People choose to smoke, drink, kill themselves, or take drugs. Terrorists actively choose to kill; the innocent victims have no choice in the matter. Yet these situations aren’t as different as it seems. A good driver following the rules who is hit by a drunk out of control is just as much an innocent victim of someone else’s choice. A lot of traffic fatalities happen for that reason. Cigarette companies use large budgets to manipulate people to smoke, and suicide is often caused by depression or other mental disorders one does not control. It’s really the illusion of control.
Psychologically, fear of terrorism is much like fear of flying — not statistically rational, but due to the loss of a sense of control over the situation, plus the drama of the plane crashes which do occur, very common. That, I think explains why people fear terrorism so vividly, while ignoring the threat faced when they pull out onto the highway with their Ford. The government should be assuring people that we are a very safe from terror attacks. True, pure security is impossible, and we’re trying our best, but in all people need not fear. Instead too many political opportunists use any error as a way to say that we are all being endangered by incompetent leadership, or a President who really thinks we are to blame for terrorism and thus doesn’t fight it hard (Glenn Beck said that).
The opportunism is crassly hypocritical. The far right, who thinks Americans should not expect the government to solve problems by regulating big money (individual responsibility, you know) does expect the state to perfectly protect us from a statistically insignificant chance of being the unlikely victim of a terrorist who managed to slip through the cracks. Cheney can say Obama “isn’t keeping us safe,” effectively stating that we should expect our government to be akin to our parents. Others say we have to really make this a “war” on terror…because after a number of years of thwarted attempts, one would be terrorist almost succeeded. Cede power to the state to keep you safe and secure, just don’t allow it to limit the pay of financial executives whose stupidity and short sightedness helped bring down the US economy!
Is terrorism a threat for the future which we should take seriously? Absolutely. 9-11 showed that in an era of globalization, even the dominant world power can be hit by a small number of people in a way that does real damage. And as technology grows, the danger of cyberterrorism and other forms of potentially more serious attacks grow as well. We should be working to put in safeguards, gain intelligence, and try to minimize the risk.
But to engage in a level of fear which we see being stoked from a few pundits and politicians, to use it to discriminate against millions because of their faith, or rationalize torture and other un-American activities, that’s going too far. Fear is a horrible advisor. Fear destroys rational thought, and often ends up leading to behaviors which draw the thing one wants to avoid. So yes, embrace a solid counter-terrorism policy in cooperation with other states, as both Presidents Bush and Obama have done. But don’t expect perfection, and remember: as of this point, even with 9-11 included, terrorism is not something Americans need fear. Terrorism remains extremely rare. There is no need to base a policy, or our emotional states, on such fear.