Are We Finally Achieving Some Sanity on Terrorism?

Now that it's been almost an entire week and a half since the Boston bombing, we can look back with some satisfaction, because America handled this pretty well. Sure, you might question whether it was necessary to shut down an entire major metropolitan area for the purpose of catching one guy. And there was (and still is) some predictable buffoonery on the part of conservative politicians and media figures. But on the whole, we seem to have weathered this attack without losing our collective minds.

Is it possible that we're now able to look rationally at what kind of a threat terrorism is, and isn't? Are we capable of having a measured reaction to a terrible event? To look toward the future without being driven mad by fear?

Holy cow, maybe so!

Nobody's cancelling major events because we're terrified. The calls from the right to postpone immigration reform or come up with some new form of ethnic/religious profiling to find and stop the next disgruntled young Chechen immigrant are being greeted mostly with the derision they deserve. And as Nate Silver details, a number of polls taken in the last week have shown Americans to be taking the Boston bombing with a good degree of equanimity:

Public opinion surveys conducted since the bombings last week at the Boston Marathon indicate that most Americans—while convinced future attacks are quite likely—don't feel personally threatened by terrorism, and an increasing share of the public is skeptical about sacrificing personal freedoms for security…

The Boston bombings have also not added to Americans' personal sense of threat, according to the recent polls. The Washington Post poll found that only 40 percent of respondents were concerned about an attack in their community, while a Fox News poll released last Wednesday showed 34 percent of respondents were worried about a terrorist attack where they live or work. That's unchanged since Fox last asked that question, in May 2006.

In addition, the post-Boston polling did not find an increased willingness to give up personal freedoms in the fight against terrorism. That contrasts with the period after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Americans told pollsters they were much more willing to trade some civil liberties for safety…

The recent Washington Post poll asked “have you or has anyone in your household started avoiding crowded places such as shopping malls because of the chance of terrorism, or not?” More than 90 percent of respondents said no.

Finally, a Rasmussen Reports poll of 1,000 likely voters conducted after the events in Boston found that more than half of the respondents — 54 percent — said economic threats were a greater danger to the country than terrorism. That is almost unchanged from a Rasmussen survey conducted in late January, more than two months before the bombs were detonated in Boston near the marathon finish line.

This all makes perfect sense, because terrorism isn't something we have to worry about in our daily lives—it wasn't before Boston, and it isn't after. I'm not saying the government's security agencies shouldn't be working aggressively to find and root it out, or that we shouldn't have thoughtful security at airports and other obvious targets; of course we should. But the truth is that while terrorism is a worldwide problem, it isn't a problem in America. We could debate how much of that is attributable to the efforts of various government agencies and how much is a function of some important features of American society (especially how quickly and well we integrate immigrants into the larger culture). But the fact remains that on the list of things you as an individual need to worry about, terrorism is incredibly low.

This is something you surely know intuitively, but for a little perspective, let's take a look at what Americans die from (these numbers come from the Centers for Disease Control). In 2011, the latest year for which we have data, 34,677 of us died in car accidents; 33,554 were poisoned; 26,631 died in falls; 15,953 were murdered; 4,160 died from injuries sustained at work; 851 died in accidental discharge of firearms; 258 Americans died from "legal intervention," which I assume means they were killed by cops. Syphilis—yes, syphilis—claimed 45 American lives.

And in 2011, according to the State Department, the total number of Americans killed by terrorism was … 17—a number that falls slightly below the 26 Americans killed by lightning strikes that year. And you know how many of those American terrorism victims died in the United States? Zero.

Terrorism is a worldwide problem, but it isn't a problem here in America. That State Department report lists worldwide deaths from terrorism in 2011 at 12,533, a number that is on a steady decline (in 2007, it was 22,720). Three countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—account for most of the world's terrorist attacks. But it almost never happens here.

Different people have different definitions of what constitutes terrorism, but as the New America Foundation has reported, "terrorists across the ideological spectrum from those motivated by Osama bin Laden's ideology to neo-Nazis have managed to kill only 46 people in the United States since the attacks on Washington and New York." In 2011, syphilis killed as many Americans as terrorism did in over a decade.

Furthermore, the attacks that have been foiled before they could be carried out or just failed, like that of the Times Square bomber, are distinguished mostly by the utter numbskullery of the would-be perpetrators. Not only are there very few people in America who want to commit acts of terrorism, most of those we do have turn out to be idiots. Television and movies have trained us to think of terrorists as extraordinarily clever people who devise and then carry out intricate plots with dozens of components that have to, and do, work in perfect synchrony. In the real world, however, killing people isn't all that difficult. The Tsarnaev brothers apparently did it with some plans they got off the Internet and no help from anybody.

The rarity of domestic terrorist attacks does not lessen the pain felt by the families of Martin Richard, Lu Lingzi, and Krystle Campbell, not one bit. Nor is it a consolation to all the people who were grievously injured in Boston. But it should affect how we think about the Boston bombing and how we act in response. And amazingly, that may be just what is happening.

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