Religious terror is not raging across America, but it seems that way. National attention is suddenly focused on our vulnerability to attacks by Islamist fanatics. Presidential candidates compete to offer more radical solutions, from banning Muslim tourists to carpet-bombing the Middle East. Welcome to the United States of Panic.
Fear is becoming part of our daily lives. Yet it is not justified by reality. The true terror threat inside the United States is a fraction of what many Americans want to believe.
Feeling threatened gives life a certain edge. During the Cold War, Americans were told that we were liable to be incinerated by Soviet bombs at any moment. Ever since the Soviet Union had the bad manners to collapse a quarter-century ago, we have been suffering from enemy deprivation syndrome. Islamic terror has cured us. One recent survey suggests that half of all Americans now fear that they or a loved one will be victim of a terror attack.
A mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., set off this latest wave of fear. It was the second act of apparently religion-inspired terror in the United States during 2015. Together they took a total of 19 lives. Also during 2015, about 30,000 Americans died in road crashes. Ten thousand were shot to death. More than 40 died in accidents involving toasters.
Mass killings only stun us when they are connected to Islam or the Middle East. Others, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were shot to death, set off fleeting periods of mourning but have no lasting effect on politics or the national psyche. Attacks provoked by anger about events far away are different. They give us the feeling — terrible, but also a bit exciting — that we are living on the edge of danger because foreigners threaten our way of life.
Politics, social media, and the relentless news cycle contribute to this pathology. No candidate or media outlet has an incentive to reassure people. In fact the opposite is true: Voters, viewers, and readers are drawn to fear-mongering. There will be more Islamist-related terror attacks, and after each one, outrage will reach another peak. Whipping up emotion and conjuring threats is a winning strategy — except for our society as a whole.
The safest and most terror-free country I ever visited was Iraq under the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. If a fellow in a café casually asked a friend whether he thought Iraq should become more religious, he was likely to be quickly arrested. Disturbing public order was a capital crime. Al Qaeda never had a chance in Saddam’s Iraq.
That level of repression would work in any country. Most Americans, however, would not accept it. Choosing to live in an open society entails risk. No one can expect absolute safety in a country where people are allowed to walk the streets freely, without searches, identity checks, and constant police presence. That means resisting the temptation to exaggerate threats.
Fear has a corrosive and lamentable effect on our society, especially on our children. It also poses another danger. Unjustified panic can lead not only to crackdowns on freedom at home but also self-destructive foreign wars. If we persuade ourselves that our country is threatened by terrorists in the Middle East, we may be tempted to attack “at the source.” This could turn the threat we now imagine into something real.
“It has generally been acknowledged to be madness to go to war for an idea,” the British statesman Lord Salisbury observed more than a century ago, “but if anything, it is yet more unsatisfactory to go to war against a nightmare.” Americans seem ready to ignore this wisdom. We live a secure national life, but make ourselves believe it is nightmarish. Islamic terror does not seriously threaten the United States. We weaken ourselves by pretending otherwise.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.