When the Next Terrorist Attack Comes, Will We Be Capable of Keeping Our Heads?

(Yui Mok/PA Wire -Press Association via AP Images)

Imagine it's six months from now. A 19-year-old man—whom we'll later learn was in communication with members of ISIL in the Middle East—walks on to the Mall in Washington on a weekend afternoon. Groups of tourists are walking about from one monument to another. He takes his backpack off his shoulders, reaches in, and removes the semiautomatic rifle he bought a month before at a gun show in Virginia, where he didn't have to submit to a background check (though it wouldn't have mattered, because his record is clean). He opens fire on the crowd, and before U.S. Park Police are able to reach him and put him down, he has killed six people and wounded eleven others. In his pocket is a note announcing his devotion ISIL, and that he is striking at the United States in retaliation for its illegal war on the true Muslims building a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Now that we have begun a new military engagement in the Middle East, this event or one like it is a possibility—indeed, probably more of a possibility than it was before, despite the belief of some that if we didn't attack ISIL, they would inevitably attack us in just this fashion. And since it's a possibility, we ought to think about what would happen afterward, so we don't completely lose our minds.

The first thing to understand is that even if there were such an attack somewhere in the United States—or if there were one ten times or even a hundred times worse—it wouldn't mean that Americans had become significantly less safe. The most remarkable thing about terrorism is how rare it is here in the U.S., despite our plentiful and easily obtained weaponry, which would make carrying out such an attack so uncomplicated. According to the Global Terrorism Database, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a total of 49 Americans have been killed in terrorist incidents. The New America Foundation, focusing only on jihadist acts of terrorism, counts 25 Americans killed in that time. Your chance of dying from almost anything else, including getting struck by lightning, is far, far higher. According to FBI crime statistics (with a little extrapolation for 2014), more than 200,000 Americans have been murdered since September 11, 200—just regular folks killing their wives, neighbors, and business rivals, mostly with guns but also with knives, poison, paperweights, and what have you. Over the same period, somewhere between 2.7 million and 5.7 million of us died because of preventable medical errors. Around half a million Americans died in car accidents.

Most of us appreciate, at least intellectually, that our chance of dying in a terrorist attack is approximately zero, and even if it increases, that increase would mean it has gone from approximately zero all the way up to pretty much zero. But that's not how we act and react. So let's go back to that attack, and consider what would happen in response. It would be the biggest news story of the year, every report emphasizing that it happened "just steps from the White House and the Capitol building." The news media would amp up the fear to levels we haven't seen in the last decade, encouraging everyone to look for sleeper cells lurking down at the Piggly Wiggly. Republicans would of course unite behind President Obama in our time of mourning—kidding! They'd go on TV to denounce him for being so weak that the evildoers struck us in our very heart, and proclaim not only that the blood of the victims is on the hands of every Democrat, but that more attacks are coming and we're more vulnerable than we've ever been. Dick Cheney would emerge snarling from his subterranean lair to warn us that this is only the beginning and we really need to start bombing at least five or six more countries. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already said about ISIL that "this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home," might just tear off his shirt and scream, "We're all gonna die! We're all gonna die!" right on Fox News Sunday.

And the public would follow right along. In a recent CNN poll, 41 percent said they were very or somewhat worried that they or a member of their family would be a victim of terrorism—which, to repeat, is about as likely as they or a member of their family getting hit by a falling piano. This number hasn't changed much in years (five years ago it was 36 percent), all accumulated evidence to the contrary. But one successful attack is all it would take to push that number comfortably past a majority. In the last year, the number of people telling the Pew Research Center that government anti-terror policies have not gone far enough to protect us has increased from 39 percent to 50 percent (among Republicans it's gone from 41 percent to 64 percent), despite the fact that the only terrorist attacks in that time came from a crazed man who wanted to kill TSA agents and a couple of right-wing extremists in Nevada.

But other than cowering in fear, what more could we possibly do to forestall terrorism? For years we've been taking off our shoes in airports, going through metal detectors in more and more buildings, and letting the NSA read our emails and track our phone calls. The U.S. government created a national security and surveillance apparatus with nearly a million federal employees and outside contractors holding top-secret security clearances, a colossus of listeners and watchers built on the foundation of our fear.

What really protects us, though, is that so few Americans have any desire to commit terrorist acts. Muslim-Americans in particular are more assimilated and loyal to their home than their counterparts in other western countries (and they've withstood a stunning level of surveillance and even harassment from law enforcement agencies over the last 13 years with an admirable equanimity and restraint). Those overseas who might like to strike at America, meanwhile, have apparently found getting a tourist visa, coming to the U.S., and buying some of our copious weapons of destruction just too challenging a task to carry out. It's a tribute to their limited talents and imagination that they keep trying to blow up airplanes, as though that's the only thing they can think of.

But one or two of them might succeed. Terrorists might kill a few Americans, or a dozen or even a hundred. If and when that happens, the question will be whether we can see things in their proper perspective and not cast about madly for any new policy that sounds like it will "keep us safe," but will actually do nothing of the sort. In other words, the challenge will be to keep our heads. If only there were more reason to be optimistic that we will.

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