During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry was asked what it would take for Americans to feel safe from terrorism. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," he said. Comparing this potential future to the way we now feel about prostitution and organized crime, he went on, "It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."
You may recall that the Bush campaign immediately accused Kerry of claiming that terrorism was already merely a nuisance (it even made a television ad about it). But in truth, terrorism already was little more than a nuisance for us, and remains so today. Yet we continue to talk as if the next 23-year-old would-be suicide bomber might actually bring down American civilization.
In the immediate wake of Sept. 11, we all thought that dealing with terrorism would be the new everyday reality of American life. The anthrax attacks (which turned out to be the work of one mentally ill American scientist) and Richard Reid's attempted "shoe bombing," both coming just weeks afterward, convinced us that this would be the case. We thought poison gas would be released in our apartment buildings, bombs would go off in our shopping malls, and expertly trained al-Qaeda operatives would lurk behind every mailbox.
None of that happened. Terrorists struck in Bali, London, and Madrid, but no successful al-Qaeda attacks occurred on American soil. (The Fort Hood shooting cannot be classified as an al-Qaeda attack, because it was not planned and carried out by the organization but was the work of one American.)
There are many reasons why each year since 2001 America has not turned into 365 episodes of 24. For one, al-Qaeda is no longer an organization in a meaningful sense but a loose network of splinter groups with limited ability to mount large-scale operations. That American Muslims have not provided much in the way of recruits for extremists -- the occasional aborted plot notwithstanding -- has been a key factor. Our geography also helps: It's much easier for an aspiring terrorist in North Africa or the Middle East to get to Europe than to the United States. Which may explain why, if you're a young Nigerian man who wants to kill Americans, the best thing you and your handlers can think of is to try to blow up a plane. Even if getting your hands on the right kind of explosives requires some effort, it's simpler than getting to the U.S. and organizing a complex attack.
For all the pearl-clutching about terrorists with super-powers ("I'm waiting for the terrorist who knows kung fu or something that gets on an airplane without a weapon," said Chris Matthews. "God knows what that is going to be like"), the truth is that for a group so menacing it supposedly threatens the existence of the most powerful nation on Earth, al-Qaeda has been able to do very little damage, even in the air. As Nate Silver pointed out, "There have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000." As another point of comparison, consider that in 2006 -- just one year -- 5,021 American pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles.
But as every terrorist knows, we're very bad at assessing our real risks and adjusting our behavior and psychology accordingly. The goal of terrorism isn't actually to kill people -- that's merely a means to an end. The goal is to force us to live in fear and upend our lives. At the airport, we've allowed them to achieve that goal spectacularly.
If you had thought nothing was dumber than reacting to a wannabe terrorist who put explosives in his sneakers by forcing everyone to take off their shoes at the airport, you were wrong. Now, because Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab happened to attempt his bombing at the end of his flight, you're not allowed to have anything in your lap, not even a book, during the last hour of yours. Any parent who can persuade his or her kids to sit silently for an hour without anything to look at or listen to deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It would make no more sense for the Transportation Security Administration to decree that white shirts are banned on airplanes since Abdulmutallab was wearing one at the time of his attempted attack. I wonder if a terrorist mastermind is sitting in Pakistan or Yemen making a list of new ways to make air travel even more unpleasant than it already is. Next up: Dispatch an operative to light his hair on fire during a flight, after which we will all have to shave our heads before boarding. Following that, instruct an attempted bomber to shout, "I will never eat pickles!", which will lead the TSA to mandate that all passengers must consume at least three gherkins at the boarding gate.
Yet once you leave the airport, you are blessedly free from the environment of paranoia. Think about it this way: When, precisely, does the fear of terrorism enter in to your life? In some places (particularly Washington, D.C.), there is increased security at certain facilities, which can slow you down by an extra minute or two. Other than that, the only time you really feel the possibility of terrorism is at the airport.
The opposition party is none too happy about this situation, because fear is one of two commodities it has to sell in the political marketplace (resentment is the other). Within hours of the failed attack, some Republicans began saying we should torture Abdulmutallab. Showing consummate class, others tried to raise money off the event. No opportunist was more visible than Dick Cheney, who slithered out of his subterranean lair and snarled, "We are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren't, it makes us less safe." The White House immediately shot back that Obama had made numerous "public statements that explicitly state we are at war. The difference is this: President Obama doesn't need to beat his chest to prove it, and -- unlike the last Administration -- we are not at war with a tactic ('terrorism'), we at war with something that is tangible: al Qaeda and its violent extremist allies."
Fair enough. But what would have been really refreshing is if the White House had said that actually, we're not at war with al-Qaeda, either. Every terrorist would love to believe that we are, because it lends their efforts and their sad lives a dramatic -- even epic -- quality. But they haven't upended our civilization, and they won't. We don't have to wet our pants every time one of them tries to hurt some of us. They have succeeded in one thing: They've made flying a gigantic pain in the ass. That's certainly a nuisance. But not much more.