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Terrorism Isn’t the Biggest Threat Facing America. It’s Barely a Threat at All.

| February 4, 2016

terrorism threat fear

Relax. It’s not that bad. (United Nations)

By Joseph S. Nye

American politics has been captured by terrorists. In December 2015, polls showed that one in six Americans, some 16% of the population, now identify terrorism as the most important national problem, up from just 3% in the previous month. This is the highest percentage of Americans to mention terrorism in a decade, although it is still lower than the 46% measured after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.


The effect of this change in public opinion has been particularly strong in the Republican presidential primary. It certainly boosted the candidacy of Donald Trump, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric has been particularly tough (if not incendiary). Some politicians are starting to call the battle against terrorism “World War III.”

Terrorism is a problem for the United States, as the attack in San Bernardino, California in December showed. But it has been blown out of proportion, both by the presidential candidates and by a news media that adheres to the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.” To put terrorism in proper perspective, Americans – and others – should bear in mind the following considerations.

Terrorism is a form of theater. Terrorists are more interested in capturing attention and putting their issue at the forefront of the agenda than in the number of deaths they cause per se. The Islamic State (ISIS) pays careful attention to stagecraft. The barbaric beheadings that are broadcast and disseminated through social media are designed to shock and outrage – and thereby capture attention. By exaggerating their effect and making every terrorist act a lead story, we play into their hands.

Terrorism is not the biggest threat facing people in advanced countries. Terrorism kills far fewer people than auto accidents or cigarettes. Indeed, terrorism is not even a big threat – or a small one, for that matter. One is likelier to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist.

Experts estimate that an American’s annual risk of being killed by a terrorist is one in 3.5 million. Americans are more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), a deer (one in two million), or on a commercial airliner (one in 2.9 million). Six thousand Americans die annually from texting or talking on the phone while driving. That is several hundred times more than die from terrorism. Radical Islamic terrorism kills fewer Americans than attacks by disgruntled workplace and school shooters. Terrorism is not World War III.

Global terrorism is not new. It often takes a generation for a wave of terrorism to burn out. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the anarchist movement killed a number of heads of state for utopian ideals. In the 1960s and 1970s, the “new left” Red Brigades and Red Army Faction hijacked planes across national borders and kidnapped and killed business and political leaders (as well as ordinary citizens).

Today’s jihadist extremists are a venerable political phenomenon wrapped in religious dress. Many of the leaders are not traditional fundamentalists, but people whose identity has been uprooted by globalization and who are searching for meaning in the imagined community of a pure Islamic caliphate. Defeating them will require time and effort, but ISIS’s parochial nature limits the range of its appeal. With its sectarian attacks, it cannot even appeal to all Muslims, much less Hindus, Christians, and others. ISIS will eventually be defeated, just as other transnational terrorists were.

Terrorism is like jiu jitsu. The smaller actor uses the larger actor’s strength to defeat it. No terrorist organization is as powerful as a state, and few terrorist movements have succeeded in overthrowing one. But if they can outrage and frustrate citizens of the state into taking self-defeating actions, they can hope to prevail. Al-Qaeda succeeded in luring the US into Afghanistan in 2001. ISIS was born in the rubble of the subsequent US-led invasion of Iraq.

Smart power is needed to defeat terrorism. Smart power is the ability to combine hard military and police power and the soft power of attraction and persuasion. Hard power is needed to kill or capture die-hard terrorists, few of whom are open to attraction or persuasion. At the same time, soft power is needed to inoculate those on the periphery whom the die-hards are trying to recruit.

That is why attention to narrative and how US actions play on social media is as important and as necessary as precision air strikes. Antagonistic rhetoric that alienates Muslims and weakens their willingness to provide crucial intelligence endangers us all. That is why the anti-Muslim posturing of some of the current presidential candidates is so counterproductive.

Terrorism is a serious issue, and it deserves to be a top priority of our intelligence, police, military, and diplomatic agencies. It is an important component of foreign policy. And it is crucial to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists’ hands.

But we should not fall into the terrorists’ trap. Let the actions of thugs play out in an empty theater. If we let them take over the main stage of our public discourse, we will undermine the quality of our civic life and distort our priorities. Our strength will have been used against us.

joseph nye project syndicate Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government. He is the author, most recently, of Is the American Century Over? See Nye’s previous column here. (c Project Syndicate)

Note: FlaglerLive is proud to be one of only nine publications that carry Project Syndicate’s content in the United States, and the only publication to do so in the South. Please consider helping pay our licensing costs by making a donation to FlaglerLive.

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18 Responses for “Terrorism Isn’t the Biggest Threat Facing America. It’s Barely a Threat at All.”

  1. Joe says:

    I think the media is the biggest threat, remember “the pen is mightier than the sword” because of the ignorance !

  2. Layla says:

    Tell all this to the families living in the EU, Mr. Nye. Especially those who’s daughters are being raped, assaulted and stabbed. Unless of course you consider them to be collateral damage.

  3. Lin says:

    This is another voice of Kerry, Obama and Clinton, he if soft power.
    Check out his resume.
    This policy has done nothing to help us here in America, Middle East and Europe
    It didn’t help in the 30s either.

  4. PCer says:

    Thank you for the voice of reason. Unfortunately, the fear mongerers and conspiracy creators have already corrupted the minds of those Americans who can’t be bothered to really educate themselves.

  5. Jim O says:

    Pierre, why don’t you go sit down for a drink with Rahm Emanuel. I think Layla is spot on. You just do not see that terrorism can impact multiple places.

  6. Commom Sense says:

    Trump, Cruz, Rubio and the rest of that sorry lot want Americans to be in fear because they will be more likely to buy into their rhetoric.

  7. Bc says:

    Another useless article. Tell the people in California tell the families in fort hood etc etc.

  8. Mark says:

    Smart leadership? That ain’t happening right now. I thought Global Warming was our greatest threat?

  9. Sherry says:

    Terrorists very simply want to TERRIFY others! They kill in horrific, brutal ways to instill terror! Unfortunately, the terrorists are actually winning that psychological battle because they have our mainstream media screaming in our ears that we should be terrified. . . regardless of the actual facts and statistics, as shown in this article.

    The terrorists are winning because they are undermining our way of life. They are eroding our values from within. For example, we are throwing away our rights to any kind of privacy without a second thought. Our fear is costing our tax payers billions to create any sense of security.

    . If we continue to panic. . . the Terrorists Win
    . If we continue to even consider electing war mongers. . . the Terrorists Win
    . If we continue to become even more bigoted . . . the Terrorists Win
    . If we continue to become even more politically divided. . . the Terrorists Win

    We need to bring forth the courage of our fore fathers. . . “We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself”!

  10. Outsider says:

    Statistically, of course, terrorism is currently a minor problem in the U.S., assuming you or your family have not become a victim. The same cannot be said for places like Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. I understand that not every Muslim subscribes to violence, but a substantial percentage, even Among American Muslims do support the eventual implementation of shariah law in our country, with a small number supporting jihad to bring that about. We have to remember however, that we are not proposing to allow American Muslims to immigrate unvetted here; we are talking about allowing thousands from the afore-mentioned locales, where support for radicalism is much higher, to enter the U.S. It’s only reasonable to assume that extremists will enter in greater numbers as the percentage of crazies is higher in those populations. So, if we want terrorism to remain statistically insignificant here in the U.S., it follows that the immigration from countries with significant radicalism issues be severely restricted. I would also add that in this country we hold dear certain values and freedoms, such as the ability of women to drive a car, go to school, go on a date without being stoned to death for it, not be groped, fondled, or raped on New Year’s Eve, and a myriad of other silly things. Why then do some people of certain political persuasion insist on importing people en masse who hold values that are contrary to our’s? It’s really quite simple and disgusting; they know that these people will eventually become citizens, and being that most will at least initially be dependent upon the government to survive, will vote for Democrats, who will happily endanger the citizenry of this country so they can maintain their political power.

  11. Markingthedays says:

    Did someone (looking at you Layla) just counter an article about terrorism (or lack of) in the United States with a reference to the EU? This is why we need free college.

  12. Markingthedays says:

    Fort Hood? You mean the place where American soldiers have attacked their own on multiple occasions?

  13. YankeeExPat says:

    Just for a little Levity I would like to see The Old Babushka’d Woman in the photo attempt to fire the Kalashnikov she is holding, she would probably end up butt backwards with her feet up in the air in that pile of green beans. Sorry, but I’m just a devotee of slapstick.

  14. Veteran says:

    Thank God I’ll be dead when Sharia is the law of the land!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Tell that to the families, friends and associates of those that still mourn the loss of those who perished as a result of 9/11. Or the Fort Hood shootings. Or San Bernardino. Tell that to the families of those who won the civil court case in New York against Terrorists who killed their loved ones–Only to have the DOJ, under Obama, vacate the award because it might bankrupt the Palestinian Authority…Who still uses some of the money they receive in supposed aid to pay a “stipend” to the families of “Martyrs” who kill random Jews, like the 19 year old young man in Massachusetts who was cut down and the American gentleman who was shot on a bus by a band of marauding Palestinians on a mission from God before they slit his guts open for good measure.

    The mindset of the woman in that picture above is the reason why children in the Palestinian territories are slaughtering others indiscriminately for the crime of “breathing while Jewish” and dying as a result of their murderous actions–much more so, even, than current Israeli policy.

  16. karma says:

    Terrorism has many forms! Not just from other countries! We have terroristic acts performed everyday by other AMERICANS AGAINST AMERICANS on our own soil. This happe s every single day in our country. WAKE UP! What’s wrong with you don’t you know your history of past and present?

  17. Glooby Gloob says:

    For many years, Americans have been accustomed to not being able to walk the streets of our cities safely at night. We have lamented children not being able to roam freely anymore. This is a new phenomenon for Europeans. In many of their once super-safe cities, women can no longer walk alone without being harassed, or worse. Unfortunately, many of the refugees they are bringing in are not, in fact, nice people just looking for a better life. They’re criminal opportunists. They’re molesting children at the public swimming pools. They’re sexually assaulting women on crowded trams. A nation is not just a geographic area; it’s the people who reside in it. Terrorism is not the biggest threat. The overall crime increase that is inseparable from third world immigration is much more difficult to contain by police and intelligence. We need to make sure we are bringing in the right kind of people in order to maintain a civilized society.

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