Terrorists are likely to strike again in the United States. Innocent people will be maimed and killed. Afterward there may be another attack, and another one after that. The shooters or bombers will run the gamut, from disoriented misfits to coldly efficient fanatics. All would join the toast that an anarchist offers in “The Secret Agent,” Joseph Conrad’s trenchant dissection of the terrorist mind: “To the destruction of what is!”
Terrorism is a passing phenomenon. It is not likely to become a permanent fact of American life. Nonetheless it is a threatening part of today’s reality, and society must find ways to respond. The greatest danger is not complacency. Worse is the prospect that in our panic over terrorism, we willingly surrender some of the values that make our society worth defending. The true threat to our democracy is not terror, but our reaction to it.
Since the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, about two dozen Americans have died as the result of terror attacks inside the United States. During that period, more than 100,000 Americans were shot to death. Four times that many perished in car crashes. One hundred Americans die every day from opiate overdoses. Forty thousand commit suicide every year. Yet terrorism is the threat that galvanizes us.
Part of the reason is that although guns, highway crashes, overdoses, and suicide take many more lives than terrorism, most of those deaths seem like private tragedies. They unfold as if inexorable. Terrorist attacks are the opposite: shocking public spectacles that rivet our attention with bloody mega-theater. As a result, the epidemics that truly devastate our society have faded into the background of national life. We are infinitely more determined to “fight” terrorism than we are to fight far deadlier scourges.
Terrorism is frightening because it is an attack on a community, a nation, even a way of life. One of its modern variants, the sort carried out by Muslim militants, seems especially scary. Behind every act of Islamic terror, some see the stirrings of a global army that can rise to destroy our country and civilization.
This is the way most Americans saw Communism during the 1950s. Politicians and the press portrayed it as an ultimate evil, capable of wiping away humanity and liable to do so at any moment. In retrospect we can see Americans’ embrace of Cold War fears as a form of collective hysteria. Yet today we are panicking in much the same way.
We are told that to deal with the threat of terrorism, we must profoundly reshape our approach to privacy, security, surveillance, and criminal justice. Many “counter-terrorism” projects are designed and run in secret, so informed debate about them is difficult. They are “on autopilot,” as Secretary of State John Kerry has said. Politicians clamor to support obscure and costly security measures rather than risk being portrayed as weak after the next attack.
Some Americans, driven by a high-energy news culture and instinctively suspicious of the outside world, seem to delight in conjuring mortal dangers that they imagine threaten the United States. Last year the arrival of child refugees from Central America set off national alarm; now it is forgotten. Later we were scared into fearing that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa would poison us. Our over-reaction to those stories, however, was relatively harmless. When we over-react to the threat of terrorism, we risk irretrievably changing our society.
The next bombing or shooting will not erode our liberties. Only we ourselves can do that. The true threat of terror is that grotesque provocations will lure us into self-defeating choices. If we react by creating a surveillance state, abandoning due process of law, and intensifying our military campaigns in the Middle East, we give terrorists victories they can never win on their own.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.