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Michael A. Cohen

The phantom threat of terrorism

New York Police Department counterterrorism officers patrol inside Trump Tower.KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

There are so many ways that the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration is maddening, but few more so than its complete and utter pointlessness. Quite simply, it’s a solution in search of a problem, and a depressing reminder that more than 15 years after 9/11, Americans still remain in thrall of the practically non-existent threat of terrorism.

“To protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States,” is the argument that Trump uses to justify the order, but in reality, a legal resident or US citizen has launched every jihadist terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11.


Though Trump’s order would ban refugees from Iraq and Syria, not a single refugee from those countries has launched a terrorist attack in the United States.

But even these facts cloud a more important issue: Americans simply don’t face any significant threat from terrorism.

There are so many more ways an American will lose their life than terrorism. In 2015, an infant with a gun killed more Americans than a jihadist with an AK-47. Carbon monoxide poisoning, furniture falling off walls, and lightning strikes each kill less than 100 Americans every year. That’s still higher than the number killed each year by terrorism.

Thirty thousand Americans die every year from gun violence; approximately the same number of people are killed in car crashes. Heroin overdoses kill about 13,00 every year. Even unintentional drowning – in bathtubs, lakes or swimming pools – kills more than 3,500 people every year, a number approximately 1,800 times larger than the number of people killed by terrorism in the United States in 2015.

What’s even more ludicrous about the exaggerated fears of terrorism is that since 9/11, a few, generally small, policy changes have kept Americans safe — things like locking cockpit doors on planes, improved information-sharing between intelligence agencies, expanded intelligence gathering, and even tighter entry restrictions for people coming into the United States. Moreover, as both the National Counterterrorism Center and the Director of National Intelligence have concluded, there is a far greater terrorist threat to America from home-grown extremists than from those traveling to the United States from overseas. Executive orders like the one Trump is pushing run the very real risk of increasing radicalization here at home and yes, increasing the threat of terrorism.


A woman holds up a sign at an immigrants’ rights rally on Jan. 29 in New York. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Trump is playing outsized fears of jihadist terrorism to justify a policy that is rooted more in the white nationalism and xenophobia of his aides — and supporters — than anything related to national security. While his motives may be pernicious, he’s also pushing against an open door. Fears of terrorism are so ingrained among ordinary Americans — and particularly Republican voters — that logic and facts play almost no role in this discussion. Americans associate Muslim countries with terrorism and, as polls indicate, many will embrace even the most racist policy ideas as long as they believe it will make them safer.

Indeed, limiting Muslim immigration to the United States is not some new policy idea. After the terrorist massacre in Paris in the fall of 2015, Republicans practically fell over themselves pushing for a ban on Syrian refugees entering the country. GOP politicians spent much of the 2016 campaign talking about the threat from terrorism in existential terms. Democrats are generally better in talking about this issue, but they too fall into the trap of portraying terrorism as a matter of major national security concern. Both sides get plenty of pressure from a news media that obsessively covers terrorist attacks around the globe and TV talking heads who inflate the potential for similar attacks in the United States. Rare is the politician or commentator who points out, “hey, terrorism in the United States isn’t really a big deal.”


As odious as Trump’s order might be, discriminatory and xenophobic policy ideas that prize “security” above all else will continue to be part of the political discourse so long as Americans are told, over and over again, that they should be scared of the next terrorist attack. Stopping the fear is the single best way to stop bad counter terrorism ideas.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.