A couple of years ago, Cato published a book, Terrorizing Ourselves, that critically examined American counterterrorism efforts.
Since that time, the United States was able to put Osama bin Laden to rest. But even this dramatic and yearned-for development, already the stuff of fable, hasn’t been able to temper the level of self-terrorization in the American public.
I’ve been sorting through poll data about terrorism from 9/11 to the present day. Although there are some temporary bumps and wiggles in reaction to events during the course of those 11 years, there has been very little, if any, decline in the degree to which Americans express anxiety about terrorism.
That is, for the most part there has been little change since late 2001 in the numbers who say they are worried that they will become a victim of terrorism, consider another major attack in the near future to be likely, are willing to trade civil liberties for security, have confidence in the government’s ability to prevent or to protect them from further terrorism, or think the United States is winning in the war on terrorism.
I have written a fuller account here in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. And there are some more extensive ruminations on what I call the “terrorism delusion” in the current International Security. That article deals with the exaggerations of the threat presented by terrorism and with the distortions of perspective these exaggerations have inspired—distortions that have in turn inspired a determined and expensive quest to ferret out, and even to create, the nearly nonexistent. It also supplies a quantitative assessment of the costs of the terrorism delusion.
Several of the poll trends I use for my conclusions are posted here.
As the Inquirer piece points out, the lack of change is quite remarkable given that no Islamist terrorist has been able to detonate even the simplest of bombs in the United States, there has been no sizable attack in the country, bin Laden is dead, alarmist hype coming out of Washington has declined (though Harvard continues to give it the old college try), and an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year.
I conclude in the Inquirer piece that it seems to suggest that the public is
likely to continue uncritically to support extravagant counterterrorism expenditures including incessant security checks, civil liberties intrusions, expanded police powers, harassment at airports, and militarized forays overseas if they can convincingly be associated with the quest to stamp out terrorism.
Both pieces use a quote from anthropologist Scott Atran: “Perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.” Much of that fright, it appears, has proven to be perpetual.