Although there are multiple reasons to have expected an erosion of concern about terrorism since 2001, poll data suggest that much of that fright continues to linger a decade and a half later. That is, fear of terrorism has been permanent or at least perpetual. There has been a long-term, routinized mass anxiety — or at least a sense of concern — about terrorism that has shown little sign of waning since 2001, and the public has chosen to persist in what might be called a false sense of insecurity. As anthropologist Scott Atran muses, “Perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.”1
It seems best to see public opinion as the primary driver behind the extraordinary counterterrorism measures adopted since 9/11. That is, the process is substantially bottom-up rather than one inspired by policymakers, risk entrepreneurs, politicians, and members of the media. They seem more nearly to be responding to the fears — playing to the galleries — than to be creating them. Since it appears that official alarmist hype was not necessary for the alarm, any decline in official and media hype is unlikely to lead to much of a decline in alarm.
This paper evaluates this rather remarkable phenomenon and considers its policy consequences. The first section examines public opinion trend data on terrorism for the United States. It shows that there has been no notable change in fears about terrorism over the decade and a half since 2001.
The second part considers a series of reasons why one might have expected to see an erosion of fear. It then sorts through a set of possible explanations for this curious pattern, stressing that special fear and anxiety seem to have been stoked and maintained primarily by the fact that Islamist terrorism has been taken to be part of a large and hostile conspiracy and network that is international in scope and rather spooky in nature. It is thus more like concerns inspired by domestic communists during the Cold War than by most traditional terrorists.
And if it is difficult to explain which events and threats will be embraced, it is even more difficult to explain how long they will linger in the public consciousness. Terrorism, like murder, has always existed in some form or other and always will. Moreover, because of the special formlessness, even spookiness, of terrorism’s hostile foreign referent in this case, it may be exceptionally difficult to get people to believe that the threat has really been extinguished — or at least that it is no longer particularly significant.
The third section explores the policy consequences. There seems to be little, if anything, policymakers can do to reduce the fear of terrorism — whether it is through shouting from the bully pulpit or through spending trillions of dollars to protect people from the feared hazard. If people want to be afraid, it seems, nothing will stop them. However, this means that policymakers are, in an important sense, free to do their job right: they can expend money responsibly in a manner that best saves lives rather than in one that seeks to reduce unjustified, and perhaps unfathomable, fears.
PUBLIC OPINION TRENDS ON TERRORISM
Poll questions specifically focused on terrorism generally find little decline since 2001 in the degree to which Americans voice concern about that hazard.2 Other issues — particularly economic ones — have often crowded out terrorism as a topic of daily concern.3 However, the 9/11 event and the fears it inspired clearly have continued to resonate in the American mind.
It does not seem that people are simply responding reflexively to the poll questions — supplying answers deemed to be socially required. Over time, the numbers on many questions have notably fluctuated in reaction to events (particularly those listed in the figures below). Thus, we see a peak and a valley, respectively, at the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003 (when many were initially fearful that Saddam Hussein would retaliate by unleashing worldwide terrorism) and the capture of Saddam Hussein in that war (which was taken for a while to reduce the danger of terrorism). A similar effect occurred around the time of the terrorist bombings in Madrid in 2004, in London in 2005, and in Paris in 2015. The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 also had a temporary impact, as did the failed underwear bomber attempt at the end of 2009. And the impact of the threatening rise in 2014 of the Islamic State, or ISIS, is notable on several trend lines.
Assessing the Trends
In general, there are two patterns. On some questions, concerns about terrorism soared at the time of the 9/11 attacks, dropped to lower levels in subsequent months, but then failed to decline much further in the years thereafter. On other questions, levels of concern measured at the time of the attacks simply continued, remaining at much the same level over the subsequent decade and a half.4
The first pattern is shown in the response to the vivid, clear, and personal question displayed in Figure 1. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, those who professed to be very or somewhat worried that they or a family member might become a victim of terrorism spiked up to 58 percent. This declined to around 40 percent by the end of 2001, a level that has held ever since.
The second pattern is displayed in Figure 2, dealing with a question about the likelihood of another terrorist attack “causing large numbers of American lives to be lost.” The percentage holding such an attack to be very or somewhat likely “in the near future” registered at over 70 percent in the aftermath of 9/11, and it was still at that level in late 2013. It spiked even higher at the time of the large terrorist attacks in London in 2005 and in Paris at the end of 2015. That pattern is traced as well in the responses to a question asking rather vaguely about the “possibility of future terrorist attacks” (Figure 3).
Figure 4 plots the results of a question about concerns over the possibility of “more major terrorist attacks in the United States.” The pattern in this case is similar to that in Figure 1: high at 9/11, then a decline by the end of the year with little change afterward. Following that pattern as well is a rather unsatisfactory pair of questions asking about the likelihood of “further acts of terrorism” (leaving the respondent to figure out what such an “act” is) over the next several weeks in the United States and in “your community” (Figure 5). The portion concerned about such “acts” taking place in their community, although relatively small, was, if anything, a bit higher in 2011 than it had often been in earlier years.
The second pattern holds for a question about whether the United States was winning the war against terrorism (Figure 6). That percentage has fluctuated, particularly in response to the war in Afghanistan that began in late 2001 and the one in Iraq that began in March 2003. However, a decade later, even after the killing of Osama bin Laden, it stood at almost exactly the same level as in October 2001. After the rise of ISIS and the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, responses to the question moved sharply (though possibly only temporarily) in a pessimistic direction, with more than twice as many respondents saying that the terrorists were winning (40 percent) versus those who believe the United States and its allies were (18 percent).
On a related question, the percentage maintaining that terrorists remain capable of launching “another major attack” was, if anything, higher in 2013 and 2014 (before the rise of ISIS) than it had been in 2002 (Figure 7).
The increase in spending on domestic homeland security since 9/11 has totaled well over $1 trillion, while efforts to chase down and eliminate terrorists abroad have cost trillions more.5
However, these extraordinary efforts and expenditures have utterly failed to make people feel safer. The percentage of Americans who profess to have confidence in the government’s ability to prevent further terrorist attacks was high after 9/11, when something of a “rally round the flag” effect took place (Figure 8).6 This declined thereafter but still remained in 2010 and 2013 at about the same level as in 2002. And the percentage who were confident (for the most part, only fairly so) that the government could protect them from such attacks has, if anything, waned over the decade and a half since 9/11 (Figure 9).
In addition, in 2013 and 2014 more Americans were inclined to see the country as less safe than before 9/11 than had said so a decade earlier. They became even more alarmed with the rise of ISIS (Figures 10 and 11).
The figures also demonstrate the spike-like impact some major events have on public opinion. For example, confidence in government counterterrorism efforts rose substantially at the time of the killing of bin Laden in May 2011 (Figure 8) and fears of terrorism subsided at the time, though to a lesser degree (Figure 11). However, any boost in public confidence and decline in fear evaporated within a few months (Figures 2 and 5).7
Another opinion change that has thus far proved to be temporary involves civil liberties. Edward Snowden’s startling revelations in June 2013 about the massive data collection efforts of the National Security Agency did seem to have some effect on concerns about invasions of privacy by the country’s counterterrorism enterprise. Figure 12 plots two relevant questions. In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations (which took place shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing), both poll questions moved decidedly in the direction of suggesting that the government had gone too far in restricting civil liberties and in intruding on privacy.8 Data are limited, but the top line in the figure, in particular, suggests this was no passing fancy: opinion moved considerably over the next year in the privacy/civil liberties direction. However, opinion shifted in the latter half of 2014 with the rise of ISIS. When last asked, these questions found that opinion on the issue had fallen back to levels seen during the decade prior to the Snowden disclosures.9
The Relation of Fears of Terrorism to Behavior and to Other Fears and Concerns
In general, the impact of terrorism on actual behavior, as opposed to opinion as registered in polls, seems to have been fairly minor.10 The 9/11 tragedy did, of course, have a notable effect on the U.S. economy, on tourism, and especially on air travel, and full recovery took more than three years — during which time hundreds were killed because they drove to their destinations to avoid flying.11 Meanwhile, however, property values in the targeted cities of New York and Washington continued upward. Eventually, like other cities, they declined, but this was caused by the recession that began in 2008, not by fears of terrorism.
The impact of other terrorist events on behavior in the United States does not seem to be very considerable even for the worst of these, the killing of 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016. More generally, an exhaustive review of international terrorism losses by Todd Sandler and Walter Enders concludes that “for most economies, the economic consequences of terrorism are generally very modest and of a short-term nature” and “large diversified economies are able to withstand terrorism and do not display adverse macroeconomic influences.” Moreover, most effects are localized.12
Nonetheless, considerable numbers of Americans claim that terrorism has affected their behavior. Since 2002, around a quarter of them have maintained that it has permanently changed the way they live (Figure 13), and more people in 2005 than had done so in 2001 said that life would never completely return to normal (Table 1). In another poll, reported worries about flying because of the risk of terrorism registered at about the same level in 2010 as in 2002 (Figure 14). And a considerable minority say that, as a result of 9/11, they are less willing to fly on airplanes, go into skyscrapers, travel overseas, or attend events where there are thousands of people (Figure 15). These percentages did not change much at all in the decade after 2001.
However, 9/11 did not cause Americans to fear for their personal safety more generally — satisfaction levels on that score were remarkably high before the attacks and have remained so since (Figure 16). Presumably, absent a specific reference to terrorism in this set of questions, respondents mostly thought about crime.
Nor did 9/11 change the degree to which Americans judged their overall quality of life to be satisfactory — although this did decline in later years in response, presumably, to the economic recession that began in 2008, only to rise again when the recession waned (Figure 17). The percentage of Americans who were very or somewhat satisfied with the “overall quality of life” remained between 81 percent and 89 percent from 2001 to 2008.
In contrast, studies in Europe suggest that terrorism can affect people’s sense of life satisfaction, or their self-reported subjective well-being scores, and that these changes can have substantial economic consequences.13 This effect does not show up in the American data, perhaps because the European studies concentrate on places like Northern Ireland, where terrorist violence was continual and more focused and thus presumably heightened actual anxiety and affected daily existence more. By contrast, terrorism in the United States since 9/11 has been not only sporadic (and rare), but effectively random. Accordingly, there is little anyone can do about it, except perhaps worry. In particular, moving to get away from it makes little sense, whereas moving out of high-crime neighborhoods (or back to them when crime there seems to subside) does.
Although Americans may profess to worry about terrorism and feel no safer from it than they did before 9/11, terrorism has dropped considerably in the degree to which it registers on questions about the most important problem facing the country today. As Figure 18 indicates, there were some upward spikes in concern at the time of official warnings in the run-up to the 2004 election about an imminent attack, and at the time of the terrorist attacks in London in 2005, the attempted attack by the underwear bomber in 2009, and the rise of ISIS in the last few years. However, the percentage of Americans who counted terrorism as the country’s “most important problem” has not registered above 20 percent since 2002. Other concerns — the wars in the Middle East and, more recently, the economy — have dominated the responses to this question.14
EXPLAINING AND EVALUATING THE TRENDS
In July 2014, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 Commission Report, the commission’s chair and vice chair voiced concern that “complacency is setting in.” Americans were exhibiting “counterterrorism fatigue” about the “evolving,” “grave,” and “undiminished” danger that, the commissioners insisted, terrorism continued to present, and they espied a “waning sense of urgency.”15 However, as we have seen, there is little evidence from the polls to support such a conclusion: concern about terrorism has not waned.16
This is rather surprising because there is reason to have expected that, however traumatic the initial experience of 9/11, concerns and anxieties about terrorism would have begun at least to wane over time.
To begin with, objectively speaking, there is little reason to fear terrorism. It was on February 16, 2003 — a decade and a half ago — that filmmaker-provocateur Michael Moore happened to remark on CBS television’s 60 Minutes that “the chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small.” His interviewer, Bob Simon, promptly admonished, “But no one sees the world like that.” Remarkably, both statements were true then, and continue to be so today.
The overall probability that an American will be killed by a terrorist (whether Islamist or not) in the United States during the last half century stands at about one in 4 million per year. For the period since 2001, the concern of this paper, the odds are far lower — something like one in 50 million per year. By comparison, an American’s chance of being killed in an automobile crash is about one in 8,200 a year, while the chance of becoming a victim of homicide is about one in 22,000. Even the chance of drowning in a bathtub (one in 950,000) or the chance of being killed by an accident-causing deer (one in 2 million) is higher than that of being killed by a terrorist. Since 9/11, the number of Americans killed by Islamist terrorists is six per year.17
Yet, as shown in Figure 1, some 40 percent of the public continues to say when polled that they worry that they or a family member will become a terrorist victim, a number that has scarcely changed since late 2001. And the percentage holding the country to be less safe than before 9/11 did not move much in the decade after the 9/11 Commission issued its report in 2004 (Figures 10 and 11).
Some direct comparisons are possible. In Table 2, worries about being a victim of a terrorist attack are compared to worries about being a victim of violent crime and of gun violence. Even though an American’s chance of being killed in a criminal homicide or by gun violence is far higher — something like one chance in 20,000 per year rather than one chance in 4 million — worry levels as measured in these polls are much the same.18
Another reason to have expected a degree of erosion is that terrorism has proved to be far less of a hazard than was feared in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Reflecting back four years after the event, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani recalled that “anybody — any one of these security experts, including myself — would have told you on September 11, 2001, we’re looking at dozens and dozens and multiyears of attacks like this.”19 And journalist Jane Mayer observed that “the only certainty shared by virtually the entire American intelligence community in the months after September 11 was that a second wave of even more devastating terrorist attacks on America was imminent.”20
However, such plausible, if alarmist, anticipations have fortunately failed to be realized, and the 9/11 attack stands out as an aberration. Before or after, there has scarcely ever been a terrorist act, inside or outside a war zone, that inflicted even one-tenth as much total destruction.21
In fact, not only has there been no repeat of 9/11, but, although al Qaeda, ISIS, and their various affiliates have served as inspiration for some jihadists in the United States, these groups have failed on their own to directly consummate any attack of any magnitude whatsoever on American soil — or, for that matter, in the air lanes approaching it.
Al Qaeda Central appears to consist of perhaps one or two hundred people. Judging from information obtained from Osama bin Laden’s lair after he was killed in Pakistan in May 2011, the few remaining al Qaeda fighters have been primarily occupied with dodging drone missile attacks, complaining about their lack of funds, and watching a lot of pornography.22 Al Qaeda has served as something of an inspiration to some Muslim extremists, has done some training, seems to have contributed to the Taliban’s far larger insurgency in Afghanistan, and may have participated in a few terrorist acts in Pakistan. In his examination of the major terrorist plots against the West since 9/11, Mitchell Silber finds only two — the shoe bomber attempt of 2001 and the effort to blow up transatlantic airliners with liquid bombs in 2006 — that could be said to be under the “command and control” of al Qaeda Central (as opposed to ones suggested, endorsed, or inspired by the organization), and there are questions about how full its control was even in these two instances, and, of course, both of these failed miserably.23 Al Qaeda has also issued videos filled with empty, self-infatuated, and essentially delusional threats.24
The killing of bin Laden in May 2011 might have been expected to help the public to relax a bit on the terrorism issue. But this has not occurred. At the time of bin Laden’s killing, there was an abrupt increase in the percentage having confidence in the government’s ability to prevent further terrorist attacks (Figure 8). But that effect fully evaporated by the time the question was next asked (see also Figures 2 and 5). The reaction of the CIA’s Michael Morell captures the public mood. He recalls that, at the time of the raid, he “felt closure for the first time since 9/11.” However, that feeling clearly didn’t last; he soon came to believe that “the war against Islamic extremism was far from over” and would have to be fought by “multiple generations.”25 Groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Nigeria that have variously been affiliated with al Qaeda have done considerable damage in connection with ongoing civil wars, but little to the “far enemy,” which is al Qaeda’s stated central goal.26 For the most part, they haven’t even tried.27
And the Islamic State now exhibits the same defects as the group from which it emerged, the al Qaeda branch in Iraq. As Middle East specialist Ramzy Mardini observed in 2014, its “fundamentals are weak”; “it does not have a sustainable endgame”; its “extreme ideology, spirit of subjugation, and acts of barbarism prevent it from becoming a political venue for the masses”; its foolhardy efforts to instill fear in everyone limit “its opportunities for alliances” and make it “vulnerable to popular backlash”; “its potential support across the region ranges from limited to nonexistent”; and it “is completely isolated, encircled by enemies.”28 In particular, ISIS’s brutalities, such as staged beheadings of hostages, summary executions of prisoners, and the rape and enslavement of female captives, have greatly intensified opposition to the group. As Georgetown University’s Daniel Byman notes, it has shown a “genius for making enemies” and has been incapable of making common cause even with other Sunni rebel groups, and, by holding territory, has presented an obvious and clear target to military opponents.29
Mardini’s observations have proved prescient. After the heady days of 2014 and early 2015, ISIS’s advances have been forcibly stopped and then reversed in its main base areas in the Middle East.30 As this was happening, ISIS decided to exact revenge and to remind the world of its continued existence by launching sporadic and vicious terrorist attacks in the Middle East and by inspiring them abroad in any country at all, not just countries participating in the fight against ISIS.31 Thus, ISIS has claimed responsibility for — or, more accurately, boorishly celebrated — terrorist attacks abroad, such as those in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Munich, Berlin, London, Manchester, and Barcelona. But there is little indication that ISIS Central planned or significantly participated in them.32
In addition, despite extensive fears, no al Qaeda or ISIS cells have appeared in the United States.33 Among the over two billion foreigners who have entered the United States legally since 9/11, one would think they could have smuggled in a few operatives at least.34
Fears about terrorism might also have been expected to decline because the homegrown terrorist “plotters” who have been apprehended have mostly proved — while perhaps potentially somewhat dangerous at least in a few cases — to be amateurish and almost absurdly incompetent. Brian Jenkins’s summary assessment is apt: “Their numbers remain small, their determination limp, and their competence poor.”35
Also relevant is that there have been so few terrorist attacks from any source in the United States. Indeed, since 9/11, Islamist extremist terrorists (none of them directly linked to al Qaeda or ISIS, except in some cases by inspiration) have managed to kill a total of about 100 people in the United States or, as noted earlier, some 6 per year.36 In addition, during the same period about half that number have been killed by right-wing terrorists.37 Considerably more people have been killed by deranged nonterrorists in various individual shootings at schools and theaters.
Shifting the focus to other countries in the developed world, there were remarkably few major attacks during the decade after 2005. Sizeable terrorist attacks — ones that kill at least 25 people — were visited upon domestic transportation systems in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, killing 191 and 52, respectively.38 The next attack of that magnitude anywhere in the developed world occurred over a decade later in a set of shootings that took place in Paris in November 2015 in which 130 were killed. One might expect that public concern about terrorism would have shown signs at least of waning over the long interval between those attacks. But it didn’t.39
Erosion of fear might also have been expected because official and media alarmism on the issue has declined at least somewhat over the years. To be sure, U.S. government officials have maintained their willingness and ability to stoke fear about the “persistent” and “evolving” threat.40 However, explicit predictions that the country must brace itself for a large imminent attack, so common in the years after September 11, are now rarely heard.41 In addition, media attention to terrorism has generally declined over most of the period since 9/11, although that changed somewhat after the dramatic and attention-arresting rise of ISIS in 2014. The general decline in interest is suggested in the data in the figures: polling agencies have substantially reduced the frequency with which they have polled on the terrorism issue over the years. It even seems possible — though it is difficult to be certain — that there has been something of a decline in concern that terrorists will get weapons of mass destruction, or at least nuclear ones, a major preoccupation for several years after 9/11.42
There are two other reasons to have expected a decline in concern about terrorism. First, huge increases in counterterrorism efforts and spending might have had some reassuring effect. Since 9/11, as noted earlier, expenditures on domestic homeland security against terrorism have grown by well over $1 trillion. And more trillions have been spent on counterterrorism wars in the Middle East in order “to defeat them abroad before they attack us at home,” as President George W. Bush put it in 2005.43 Former National Security Agency director Michael Hayden recalls a dictum he issued two days after 9/11: “We were going to keep America free by making Americans feel safe.”44 America has, it seems, pretty much remained free, but the polls strongly suggest it is not because Americans have come to feel safe.
And second, it is rather easy to register a change of opinion in polls. Most questions give those polled a response range with gradations that should facilitate a change if one is so inclined. For example, respondents are not obligated to choose between deeming another terrorist attack to be either likely or unlikely. Rather, they can go from “very likely” to “somewhat likely” or from “somewhat likely” to “not too likely.” For the most part, they have declined to do so, at least in the aggregate. Explaining the Absence of Decline On some poll questions, anxieties about the threat presented by terrorism declined in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, while other poll questions have shown no decline whatsoever. The substantial absence of decline on nearly all questions in the subsequent years is quite impressive given the many reasons to have expected Americans to have become less fearful.
Several factors may help to explain this puzzling phenomenon. The persistence of anxieties about terrorism among Americans doubtless stems importantly from the peculiar, outsized trauma induced by the 9/11 attacks. And it is possible that this initial alarm was importantly reinforced or reified by the (unrelated) anthrax attacks that followed shortly after.45 Two other events that took place in late 2001 may also have reinforced alarm. One was an airliner crash in New York on November 12 that was at first commonly taken to be caused by terrorism, a conclusion that turned out not to be true. The other was the bungled effort of the shoe bomber to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami on December 22.46
However, if September 11 is an aberration, as it increasingly appears, it would seem to follow that the experience might gradually come to be seen as a tragic outlier, not one that fundamentally determines consequent activities, perceptions, planning, and expenditures. But that has not happened.
There might also be an effect from some continued resonance of the extrapolation holding that, because the 9/11 terrorists were successful with box cutters, they might soon be able to turn out weapons of mass destruction and then detonate them in an American city.47 In fact, terrorists have been unable to fabricate much in the way of chemical weapons, much less nuclear ones.48
Anxiety may also derive from the perception that Muslim extremist terrorists, like those of 9/11, seem to be out to kill more or less at random. In some respects, fear of terrorism may be something like playing the lottery except in reverse. The chances of winning the lottery or of dying from terrorism may be microscopic, but for monumental events that are, or seem, random, one can conclude that one’s chances are just as good or bad as those of anyone else. As Cass Sunstein notes: