The other day, trying to get out of DC at rush hour, I watched as a car lost control at an intersection on the National Mall, and jumped the curb onto the sidewalk. It came to rest at a corner often packed with tourists heading to the Washington Monument. Thankfully, there was nobody there at the time except for one shaken woman whom the car missed by several feet.
The government could have prevented this. Lawmakers could have required all speed limits to be 10 mph or less. Regulators could have prevented it by requiring all cars to be incapable of traveling more than 10 miles per hour.
Of course if they did try to prevent it, people would be outraged. The reason is that we are all willing to accept a certain amount of risk in our lives in exchange for convenience and a sense of personal freedom. Most of us are pleased that airbags and seatbelts are standard equipment on cars today, but we’d balk at the requirement that they also be encased in three feet of bubble wrap.
As a society, we’ve done a reasonably good job of admitting that there is a level of risk inherent in the use of automobiles, and we’ve come to a rough social agreement on the level of risk we’re willing to accept. The same can’t be said for the risk of terrorism.
Since the horrible September 11 attacks 13 years ago, Americans have never had a serious national debate about the amount of protection we expect from the government when it comes to terrorist attacks.
This weekend, appearing on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina gave an excellent example of why that is.
But he quickly became agitated. “This is a war we’re fighting; it is not a counter-terrorism operation,” he said angrily. “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.”
Ahem…Let’s be clear on this. Even if you grant Graham’s dubious assertion that ISIS is, in any real sense, an army, that army has no capacity to attack the United States at all, much less to mount an assault in which we would “all get killed.”
When it comes to talking about terrorism, though, that’s our problem. Even the smallest of risks are talked about as though they are looming catastrophes that must be avoided at all costs. At some point, it would be helpful if our leaders would have an honest discussion with Americans about what the government can and cannot do to protect us.
But that’s not what we get, says Josh Woods, associate professor at West Virginia University and the author of Freaking Out: A Decade of Living with Terrorism.
“It’s like this ‘better safe than sorry’ principle,” Woods said. Politicians are unwilling to give a realistic assessment of the real risk of terrorism because the political consequences of seeming not to take the issue seriously are enormous.
“I don’t know of any sober statement about it from a U.S. politician,” he said. “But I wouldn’t just blame it on leaders.”
American public opinion, he said, drives much of what the political class does. Citing a regular Gallup survey question about the likelihood of a terror attack in the U.S. in the near future, Woods said, “When you combine the ones who think it’s ‘very likely’ and ‘somewhat likely,’ half the country thinks it’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks.”
Of course “it” – a major terror attack – isn’t likely to happen in the next few weeks. And if it does, even at ten times the size of a 9/11 event, it still wouldn’t top the number of people who die on American roads every year.
And yet, few of us sit around obsessing over our chances of dying in a car accident.
The fact is that, just as with automobiles, Americans are likely willing to tolerate a certain degree of terrorism risk. In truth, we already do. But our leaders don’t talk about terrorist attacks as the limited danger that they are. Like Sen. Graham, they go immediately to apocalyptic rhetoric. Literally.
“[I]f they survive our best shot,” he concluded Sunday, “…then they will open the gates of Hell to spill out onto the world.”
ISIS is a danger, but it’s no nuclear-armed USSR. Talking about it as such has led to secret prisons, U.S. agents torturing terror suspects, the creation of a massive state surveillance infrastructure, and highly militarized local police forces that treat civilians like enemy combatants.
Unless we get a handle on how to really assess terrorism risks, and to talk about them rationally, ISIS won’t have to unleash Hell on us – we’ll wind up creating our own.
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