It seems like every we look up there is another incident of domestic terrorism, and specifically, to use the language that President Obama has been perplexingly wary of using, radical Islamist terrorism. From the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, to the more recent shooting in San Bernardino, the “lone wolf attack” feels like the new American reality. However, it really only just seems that way. While a few attacks, such as Boston and San Bernardino, have taken many lives, most have only killed a relatively small number of people.
Obviously, one American dying at the hands of Islamist terrorists is too many; and all of the lives that have been cut short by that murderous and fanatical ideology represent a great loss and a tragedy. However, since September 11, 2001 fewer than 50 Americans have been killed by Jihadist terrorists on American soil. Given a population of more than 300 million people, that is a relatively small number and one dwarfed by the number of people who have died by gun violence, car accidents, suicide, and countless forms of diseases during that same period. There are diseases most Americans have never head of that have killed many more people in the U.S. than Islamic terrorists have since September 11th.
Politicians, policy makers or pundits, who are concerned about saving American lives, should rather spend more of their time figuring out how Americans can improve car safety, better medical treatment, take safer baths and yes, get shot by people who they may or may not know less frequently.
Dramatically changing our policies on terrorism would be an illogical reaction to the reality of the threat that we face.
This is not to suggest that the U.S. give up on fighting terrorism, because one of the reasons so few Americans have died at the hands of Islamic terrorists here in the U.S. is because of the vigilance of security services. Nonetheless, it should be recognized that over the last 14 years two presidential administrations, one Democratic and one Republican, have, through a myriad different methods, been able to keep this problem under control. Continuing to effectively stop terrorism will require maintaining and refining these policies, but not doing anything dramatically new or different.
Unfortunately, while the Bush and Obama administrations have been able to keep the American people safe here in the U.S., neither has been able to thwart radical Islam. That is an acute foreign policy challenge, one around which we should continue to have a vibrant and thoughtful debate, but it is not the same as the battle to keep Americans safe from domestic Islamist terror.
Terrorism, of course, is bigger than simply the number of people it kills; it scares people and disrupts their everyday lives. In this way the terrorists, no matter how few people they have actually killed here, have partially succeeded. However, their success would not have been possible without a political and media culture in the U.S. that exaggerates the threat.
While this current wave of Jihadist terrorism is perhaps new, terrorism has been constant threat in many countries. The most glaring example of this is Israel, where terrorist attacks are much more frequent than in the U.S., and where the people and leaders are much less cowed by that than we are here in the U.S. Even in Europe, terrorism, whether from the IRA, Basque nationalists, fringe left wing groups, fringe right wing groups or others, has been around for years. This is part of American history as well. White supremacists, Islamists, radicals like the Weatherman and others have committed many acts of terror, some much more devastating than San Bernardino or Boston, over the years.
The problem with making war on terrorism, rather than on a specific threat is that that it is hard to recognize, or even define, victory in that kind of war. In this respect, it is different than other American wars, even those such as World War II where we were threatened by much more powerful adversaries. Nazi Germany could be defeated because it was a state. Terrorism is a method. If, in the 1940s, we had made war on, say, propaganda, a tactic employed to devastating effect by the Nazis as well as the USSR, America’s adversary during the years following World War II, that war would not be over as long as propaganda was deployed against the U.S. The analogy is not perfect, but the point should be clear. The concept of terrorism may never be eliminated, but the battery of military, law enforcement and other approaches have reduced violence by radical Islamists to a minor threat in the U.S.
The relatively successful efforts to prevent Jihadist terrorism in the U.S. should by no means be understood as a reason to ignore the threat entirely or to stop doing what we are doing, but it should be a reminder that dramatically changing our policies on terrorism would be an illogical reaction to the reality of the threat that we face. The policy makers charged with combating domestic terrorism should be thinking not about ways to keep Muslims out of the country or to monitor the behaviors of all Muslim Americans, rather they should be examining the extent, for example, to which blanket surveillance of the American people is necessary. A smarter war on terror should be able to achieve the same positive results of the last almost fifteen years while limiting, not expanding, government of Americans.
It will be many years before radical Islamic terror is eliminated from the globe. Indeed, it may never happen, but that does not mean that Americans should forever live in fear or compromise our values and laws to defeat an enemy that we have already largely defeated.
Lincoln MItchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.