Commentary

We Are Terrorized: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing, and Why It Can’t Be Easily Fixed

According to a recent poll, Americans are more pessimistic about terrorism than at any time since 9/11. The CNN/ORC survey (full results in .pdf format) asked, “Who do you think is currently winning the war on terrorism — the U.S. and its allies, neither side, or the terrorists?” Forty percent of respondents said that the terrorists were winning, while a mere 18 percent believed that the United States and its allies were winning. After the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, just 9 percent believed the terrorists had the upper hand.

This recent poll, conducted in mid-December after the San Bernardino attacks, is hardly a fluke. Others have found U.S. fears of terrorism to be at or near all-time highs. “Although other issues — particularly economic ones — often crowded out terrorism as a topic of daily concern,” explain my Cato colleague John Mueller and co-author Mark Stewart, “terrorism has won an apparently permanent space in the American mind.”

Responsible counterterrorism policy must not merely disrupt terror cells, impede their planning, and thwart their ability to attract new recruits; it must also tackle the fear that terrorists seek to induce.

The fact that Americans remain fearful of terrorism is surprising in several respects. Judged in purely probabilistic terms, terrorism poses a far less significant threat to human life than a host of hazards, from lightning strikes, to collisions with animals, to falling household furniture. “An American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist,” note Mueller and Stewart, “has been, and remains, one in four million per year with 9/11 included in the calculation, or one in 110 million for the period since 2001.” More Americans have been killed by weather incidents in the last two weeks than have been killed by attacks by Islamist extremists on U.S. soil in the last 14 years.

There are several plausible explanations for why public sentiment doesn’t track with an objective assessment of the risks of terrorism relative to other hazards.

NPR’s Steve Inskeep recently asked President Barack Obama why his strategy to reassure the public about the fight against the Islamic State had failed. Obama explained that he lacked the credibility of some of his predecessors, including Dwight Eisenhower, who, despite his exalted stature, also failed to calm Americans’ fears during the Cold War.

But when Obama tried to provide some useful context, it was clear that he didn’t want to appear to be downplaying the terrorist threat too much. The net effect was a bit of a muddle.

“ISIL is … not the Soviet Union,” he began. “And I think that it is very important for us to understand this is a serious challenge.” He called the Islamic State “a virulent, nasty organization” that deserved to be taken seriously.

Then the president said:

But it is also important for us to keep things in perspective, and this is not an organization that can destroy the United States. … But they can hurt us, and they can hurt our people and our families. And so I understand why people are worried.

The most damage they can do, though, is if they start changing how we live and what our values are, and part of my message … is to … make sure that our resilience, our values, [and] our unity are maintained.

Obama seems to appreciate that the best approach to combating terrorism is to not terrorize ourselves. But following this advice isn’t easy.

Politicians worry that they will be punished for appearing to tamp down public fears — although there is little evidence that they ever are. In his book, Why Courage Matters, John McCain wrote: “Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave.” Such talk didn’t prevent him from winning the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. Michael Bloomberg won reelection as mayor of New York after telling city residents to “Get a life.” “There are lots of threats to you in the world,” he said. “There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything.”

Still, the incentives all seem to run in the direction of threat inflation. For every Bloomberg, there are many more Kings and Grahams. And, rhetoric aside, politicians are held accountable when things go badly. When the stock market crashes, the president is blamed. So, too, when a plane crashes. The optimal number of crashes, from a purely political perspective, is zero.

On the other hand, achieving a zero-risk society defies political solutions. The only way to eliminate all deaths from plane crashes is to prohibit commercial air travel. The public thankfully would never tolerate such draconian limitations on their freedom to move about in the most rapid and economical (and safest) fashion. We therefore accept some measure of risk in our lives, and routinely scrutinize public policies aimed at reducing the likelihood of injury or premature death. If the burden seems too high relative to the gains, we demand that the restrictions be relaxed or removed. Seatbelts and airbags in cars? Ok. Riding around in bubblewrap? No thanks.

But we generally refuse to assess the costs and benefits of different counterterrorism measures. Our reactions to terrorist events that claim tens or hundreds of lives differ from other horrific events, from hurricanes to wars, which kill thousands or millions. Extreme anxiety about terrorism leads to far greater tolerance for public policies that impinge on individual liberty, even though they may or may not actually reduce our likelihood of being killed or injured by a terrorist attack.

Responsible counterterrorism policy, therefore, must not merely disrupt terror cells, impede their planning, and thwart their ability to attract new recruits; it must also tackle the fear that terrorists seek to induce.

Several years ago, Benjamin Friedman, Jim Harper, and I convened a series of discussions with leading experts on terrorism, and with current and former public officials responsible for combating it. The message that emerged from these meetings, and that informed the introduction to a collection of essays on the subject, was that “overreaction does most of the work of terrorism,” and therefore public policies should be aimed at thwarting counterproductive responses:

Instead of exalting and fearing remotely possible — or impossible — threats, the nation should address real threats steadfastly and confidently. …

The alternative is more of the same: spending huge sums on dubious security measures, shedding liberties, and sacrificing American lives to attack overhyped threats.

We titled the book, Terrorizing Ourselves, with the hopeful subtitle “Why American Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It.”

Today, nearly six years after that book’s publication, I can say that, to the extent that public officials have attempted to put terrorism into proper context, and calm public fears of it, they have not fixed our counterterrorism policy. They might prefer to be assessed on plots disrupted, leads followed up on, and potential terrorists killed or captured. Such numbers are meaningless, however, if the public isn’t reassured by them.

That doesn’t mean that U.S. officials should stop trying. Terrorism achieves its ultimate objective by inducing a targeted population to change its behavior. If we cower in fear, stop traveling, or avoid public places, then the terrorists really will have won.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.