As Americans prepare to celebrate Independence Day, officials in the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are warning us that there's a heightened threat of Islamist terrorist attacks. CNN is reporting that law enforcement officials believe that the Islamist threat is "the highest in years." CIA deputy director turned CBS security analyst Michael Morrell declared, "I wouldn't be surprised if we're sitting here a week from today talking about an attack over the weekend in the United States. That's how serious this is."
So just how "serious" is the risk? Well, the risks to American lives aren't very big. Things don't look good, though, for the constitutional freedoms we celebrate on the Fourth.
The current spate of terrorism warnings certainly sounds scary in light of the recent terror attacks in Kuwait, Tunisia, and France. Islamic radicals linked with ISIS and Al Qaeda no doubt hope to carry out or inspire attacks in the United States. I was as horrified any other American by the September 11, 2001, atrocities. But we all need to keep in mind that terror only works if you let it.
The plain fact is that terrorism does not remotely threaten the existence of the United States. Even more importantly, it does not materially threaten you or your family. According to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, only 68 Americans have died in terror attacks since 9/11, and that includes the 13 who died in the Fort Hood rampage by military psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan.
That's an average of just under 5 people per year. An additional 260 Americans were injured, including 132 in the Boston Marathon bombing, yielding an average of about 19 people wounded annually. So since 2001, your annual chances of dying or being injured in a terrorist attack have been 1 in 62 million and 1 in 16 million, respectively. For some context, note that an average of 335 people drown in their bathtubs annually, a rate of just over 1 in 900,000. Americans are 69 times more likely to die taking a bath than from terrorism.
Of the years covered by the Global Terrorism Database, the one with the most terrorist incidents in the U.S. was 1970—which also happens to be the year the data start being collected. That year saw an astonishing 468 terrorist bombings, arsons, and shootings, which were mostly perpetrated by black nationalists, student radicals, and left-wing militants, with an occasional white extremist group thrown in. These attacks killed 30 people and injured 161 others. In contrast, there were 16 deaths and 6 injuries in the database for 2014. Of those, only two deaths appear to have resulted from attacks motivated by radical Islam. Lightning strikes killed 26 Americans last year, 10 more than died in terror attacks.
When it comes to attacks specifically occurring around the Fourth of July, since 2001 four have been perpetrated by Animal Liberation Front activists, two targeted abortion clinics in Florida, one was a knifing of a Hispanic man by white supremacists in California, and one other was an attempted arson of a mosque in Missouri. Fortunately, no one died in any of those incidents.
So why do 49 percent of Americans say in a recent Gallup Poll that they are very to somewhat worried that they or a family member will become a victim of terrorism?
One big reason is that our extensive and growing security bureaucracies and their enablers in Congress have an interest in promoting those fears. As John Mueller, a political scientist at the Ohio State University, explained back in 2007, there is "a terrorism industry—politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, and risk entrepreneurs who systematically exaggerate dangers and who often profit from their fear-mongering and alarmism." Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that when public fears have been aroused by a spectacular attack, the standard processes of political power-grabbing can fuel a self-reinforcing cycle in which the government "can never make enough progress toward 'protecting America' to reassure Americans against the fears it is helping to stoke." Or as journalist H.L. Mencken put it, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins."
As a result of these processes, Americans have seen their rights and freedoms eroded in ways both big and small. We live now in a "your papers please" world where we all are subject to "random" searches in order to enter government buildings or take public transport. We have lost our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy. The national security surveillance state has metastasized.
What is to be done? When the next terrorist attack occurs, we must forcefully remind ourselves that the perpetrators are seeking to destroy our open society and free institutions. By overreacting to the minimal risks they pose, we have been doing the terrorists' work for them. So if there is an attack this holiday weekend, stay calm, carry on, and above all, defend the Constitution.