In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Gallup finds that terrorism is the number-one concern of Americans.
To put that 16 percent figure in perspective, right after the 9/11 attacks, 46 percent of us thought terrorism was the biggest problem. And after the Charlie Hebdo masscre, 8 percent of us did.
Then there's this finding: At the exact moment that people are flipping out about terrorism, confidence in the government's ability to protect us from terrorism is at a new all-time low of just 55 percent:
Both findings are simultaneously understandable and hysterical. Of course we have heightened concerns about terrorism given recent attacks (the killing and wounding of several people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic can be thrown into that mix, too). Beyond the very fact of the San Bernardino shooting, revelations that one of the killers, Tashfeen Malik, had been cleared to enter the country despite posting pro-jihadist ramblings on social media make the government look bad.
So why are the reactions hysterical? Because "you're more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than by a terrorist." Regardless of whether that's because of or in spite of government's efforts, it means it's far harder to pull off attacks than people generally think. Either way, the last decade-plus has been pretty safe regarding terrorism.
Few politicians have been less effective than Barack Obama in showing empathy and concern for national anxieties, but it's not exactly clear what more he or other leaders could be doing. There's simply no way in an open society to zero out all bombings, shootings, and the like. Most of the proposed remedies to San Bernardino—ban guns! ban fiancees! ban refugees! ban immigrants, or at least immigrants from countries with visa waivers and/or Muslim-majority nations!—are more security theater than anything else, especially given that ISIS is more likely to inspire attacks rather than direct them. There's no information connecting ISIS to San Bernardino but even if there were, the group would route around new obstacles. The government should look at tightening its procedures, which it is doing.
Beyond that, creating new layers of bureaucratic oversight over various existing procedures is unlikely to be of any more value to our safety than creating the TSA or doing bulk collection of phone records has been. Which is to say, essentially zero in both cases. (The immediate fix of fortifying cockpit doors shortly after 9/11 effectively meant that commercial planes could never again be used as missiles.)
But of course inspiring hysteria is part and parcel of the terrorism playbook. Inspiring fear and overreaction is the goal. And congrats, America, you're following the script perfectly.
For some calming insights on that, watch John Mueller and Mark Stewart discuss with Reason why you should fear bathtubs more than terrorists:
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