Terrorism Fears Create False Feelings of Insecurity

Don't be spooked by exaggerated view of threats against the U.S.


Martin Dempsey
Mc Daniel Hinton/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Anxiety must be strangely addictive, because Americans can't seem to get enough of it. We enjoy a measure of national security and personal safety that is the envy of people around the world—from Ukraine to Syria to Nigeria. But many of us manage to feel perpetually endangered, in good times and bad.

One of these people, surprisingly, is Martin Dempsey, a retired four-star Army general who stepped down last year as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In an interview in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, he solemnly said of the present moment, "It's the most dangerous period of my lifetime."

Clearly, Dempsey went to a school where students weren't drilled in hiding under desks in case nuclear war ever broke out. Apparently, he forgets the Soviet shoot-down of a Korean airliner in 1983. And would anyone trade today for Sept. 12, 2001?

Dempsey was born in 1952, when the United States was fighting a war against North Korea and its ally, China. He lived through the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel seriously considered using nuclear weapons.

Americans have come through more perilous straits than any visible now. But our past seems to have conditioned him and many of his fellow citizens to detect grave danger where it doesn't exist.

Maybe an extreme sensitivity to the slightest hazard is a useful quality in a general. But Dempsey's predilection leads him astray and feeds a widespread public perception that is at odds with reality.

He has plenty of company. Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Ben Carson flagged the Islamic State as an "existential threat" to the United States. Donald Trump has likened the menace of "radical Islamic terrorism" to the danger posed in the 20th century by Nazism and communism.

A lot of people regard this dire vision as accurate. A May CNN/ORC poll found that 73 percent of Americans see the Islamic State as a "very serious threat."

But the Islamic State, losing ground and taking lots of casualties, can no longer do much more than inspire the occasional lunatic to murder some innocents. It's a minor nuisance compared with the Soviet Union, whose nuclear arsenal could have vaporized millions of Americans in a matter of hours.

Terrorism is less common today than in Dempsey's youth. In one 18-month period spanning 1971 and 1972, the FBI counted upward of 2,500 bombings, carried out by radical groups on both the left and the right. In the 1960s and early '70s, more than 150 airliners were hijacked in this country.

The fears felt in those days are now forgotten, while the current ones are inflated. Al-Qaida is a shadow of its former self. The 9/11 attacks, instead of being a prelude to many more, were a one-off that Osama bin Laden could never come close to replicating.

Dempsey can't offer serious evidence to justify his warning. "We have multiple challenges competing for finite resources—and grotesque uncertainty with regard to the military budget," he lamented.

But we have always had more than one problem, and our resources have never been limitless. Though the military budget has fallen a bit in real terms, that shrinkage comes after a 50 percent increase in the decade after 9/11—and outlays have been higher under Barack Obama than under George W. Bush.

There is some uncertainty because of the caps imposed by the 2011 budget deal between Obama and Congress. But there is no doubt that the United States will continue to spend far more on the military than any other nation on earth—and twice as much as Russia and China combined.

The general also expresses alarm about the Russians and Chinese, who he says are "challenging our interests in Europe and in the Pacific." Pursuing goals that diverge from ours in their own backyards, however, doesn't make them an urgent menace.

As for the threat posed by terrorism, it's real but far smaller than generally perceived. "In the years since 9/11," write John Mueller and Mark Stewart on the Foreign Affairs website, "Islamist terrorists have managed to kill about seven people a year within the United States." Collisions with deer, by contrast, kill 150 people a year.

Even the most secure nation needs to pay attention to tangible dangers, including small ones. But it shouldn't let itself be spooked by shadows.

© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Katherine Mangu-Ward & Virginia Postrel Talking Reason Mag Past, Present, Future!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. We live in a state of fear. It seems that everything in the media today is about making us feel unsecured and at risk. News blows events way out of proportion (most of the time). Commercials sell by making you fear.

    Noticed the other day watching the news (almost never do) – It had to be 80% of the commercials were for some kind of drug or “health” item. At one point there were 6 drug commercials in a row.

    1. or how about those clouds in the Atlantic ocean that the media is drooling over to become the next mega hurricane. its disgusting.

    2. Start working at home with GOOGLE! YAHOO. ABCNEWS AND MORE GLOBAL SITES? It’s by-far the best job I’ve had. Last Monday I got a brand new BMW since getting a check for $6474 this ? 4 weeks past. I began this 7-months ago and immediately was bringing home at least $97 per hour. i work through this web.. Go this website and go to tech tab for more details… http://goo.gl/jrG8Uv

  2. If the military budget is an issue, it’s only because we have been deployed overseas for far too long and it is taking a toll on the servicemen and the equipment.

    1. Well, that. And my Squadron Commander made me purchase $350k in Base-X tents because, the GP Mediums weren’t sexy enough and if we didn’t spend our GWOT dollars we weren’t going to get them renewed next month. Meanwhile, half the Squadron deployed with M16A2’s instead of M4’s, because “different pots of money”.

  3. It’s always sad to see an elderly man soil himself in fear.

    That scares me.

  4. he forgets the Soviet shoot-down of a Korean airliner in 1983



      1. There was a large number of physicists on that plane–lots of coverage in the pages of Physics Today at the time.

  5. Panic is the drug of choice for kneelers and clashers. Meanwhile, they like to throw my goddamn type in the prisons for living sweet harmonies in the woods injuring no one. Fuck the kneelers and clashers.

  6. “It’s the most dangerous period of my lifetime.”

    “What with my mistress threatening to go public and this fucking skin cancer, I’m practically beside myself!”

    1. Your felicity is notable, companion.

  7. You should avoid becoming a soldier not because the pocked road is chocked with despair and challenge where suns dip under the fiery arches of blood. You should avoid becoming a soldier because your life must be reckoned outside the blurry cause of temptations slyly dispensed from the golden fists of callous disregard.

    1. Wow, A C! That last sentence is *packed* with meaning!

      How’s the diurnal cycle these days, if I ain’t being too inquisitive?

      1. Ambling around the moments as they appear, bro. Tossing letters in the gentle stack is like a breeze fluttering hung lace.

        1. Just watched RSC production of Henry V [2012]; sounds as though you have as well, anon.

  8. What happened to reason Reason??? As a lifelong lover of liberty I see regulations and government force are at an all time high in my 40 years as an adult. Waves of dissimilated immigrants and lousy public schools have diluted citizens zest for freedom and made “free” stuff the quest of the many at the sacrifice and expense of the fewer and fewer. It’s dangerous times for freedom my friends. WAKE UP REASON writers and contributors!

    1. DR…..DRINK!!

    2. Took me decades, till 2007, to finally understand that our spoiler votes are what repeal bad laws and lower taxes. It would be helpful if more people brought up this fact when Republican infiltrators start whining about “wasted” votes. Australia has preferential voting, so they can vote for several parties in order of preference. But here, the cold mathematical reality is that every libertarian vote repeals a bad law, changes a court case or lowers a tax somewhere, so there is literally no way you can lose by voting libertarian. Look at all the states where you can now fire up a joint without being shot or handcuffed!

  9. And the real demons we should fear – NSA, IRS, ATF, DHS – remain almost invisible to most citizens. Those guys can and will f up your life.

    1. I seek out victims of these looter Gestapos and personally tell them how the short libertarian platform calls for curtailing and eliminating those armed gangs. The entrenched looter parties have platforms ten times as long, and none of what they’ve done these past four years (except threaten, rob and kill) is in their platforms from 2012 or 2008. Spoiler votes give them no choice but to change their policies.

      As a Trump apologist put it today on Dilbert: “Trump saw his number fall and started to soften his position to be more inclusive and flexible. The public changed him via the polls.” Similarly, the Whigs were never the same again after being beaten by the Red Republicans in the 1960 election.

      Nothing will make God’s Own Prohibitionists wake up to secular reality like getting the bloody snot beat out of them by an American version of Angela Merkel, the East German communist trouper.

  10. The joint chief’s are nothing but money grubbing children that want to play with their toys world wide.

  11. Maybe an extreme sensitivity to the slightest hazard is a useful quality in a general.

    Not really. I would think an ability to accurately assess dangers and correctly respond to them would be a far more useful trait in a general than being an easily frightened, pants shitting pussy.

    1. “Pussy” as in the way the bike-riding Libertarian candidate referred to the limo-driven Republican candied date?

  12. Facebook gives you a great opportunity to earn 98652$ at your home.If you are some intelligent you makemany more Dollars.I am also earning many more, my relatives wondered to see how i settle my Life in few days thank GOD to you for this…You can also make cash i never tell alie you should check this I am sure you shocked to see this amazing offer…I’m Loving it!!!!
    ????????> http://www.factoryofincome.com

  13. I’m tired of everyone saying Americans are scared or live in fear. I don’t know anyone who is fearful of any attacks. that said as a person who lives where occasionally there is no power and the odds of being snowed in or earthquakes or fires are high I’ve always been moderately prepared. Prepared is not fear its just like having insurance or a fire extinguisher in the house.

    1. So you’re saying you’re paranoid?

      1. shaking with fear

    2. The fact that government thugs violate people’s constitutional rights at airports and the fact that the government is conducting mass surveillance on the populace would seem to indicate that many people are quite fearful.

  14. Danger is not necessarily about what is happening or has recently happened. Looking narrowly at past and present conditions, one might surmise that sitting on a powder keg is safe.

    The cultural conflict between an aggressive, bigoted Islamic minority and a decadent, semi-liberal European majority is indeed a big-ass powder keg, and the US empire has a poor track record at staying out of Europe’s problems.

    1. My 8th grade Geography teacher predicted that WW-III would be Russia and China nuking each other, and WW-IV would be Africans invading a depopulated Europe with clubs and stones.

  15. There were 4.5 radical bombings PER DAY in 1971-1972? I ‘d like to see a citation for that statistic.

    1. Search “homicide rate” in images. When Richard Nixon–the insane Republican whose excesses caused David Nolan and friends to organize the Libertarian Party–ordered napalming of children abroad by youths kidnapped into military slavery and the murder and incarceration of all who dared to prefer substances safer than alcohol and tobacco, there was a huge bulge in the homicide rate. Back when the Republicans banned condoms and made beer a federal felony for over a decade there was a similar bulge in homicides. Everywhere in the seventies was another Weatherman bomb announcement or the Baader-Meinhoff, Symbionese Liberation, mystical mohammedans and other groups out gunning for Republicans with blood in their eye.

  16. Retired. Current people are listening, though not always to the right people, and not always with the mindset needed, aka EXTREME doubt about what is “accepted”. ALL things presented are questionable, should be questioned, SHOULD be questioned, does not matter (maybe it really does?) the source. QUESTION EVERYTHING. Dogma is for Dogs Mothers.

  17. The Generalissimo drew paychecks for helping politicians conjure up visions of hobgoblins to further entrench paranoid looter parties. Exaggeration? The first sentence in the 2016 GOP platform contains “danger” and equivalent terms appear on MOST of its pages. Democratic People’s Party overuses “danger” and its derivatives nearly half as often (13 iterations in 51 pages). The GOP is still stuck in the Herbert Hoover mindset of Christendom threatened by “atheism” which led him to help National Socialism rise to power in Germany. The Democrat mindset more closely resembles East German Communism, which relies–not on its own merits–but on very real fear of another takeover by religious fanatics. Neither one of these parties is equipped to cope with today’s world, and both turn to military force and the violence of law as the universal panacea for all ailments, genuine or hypochondriacal. The LP platform in its 8 pages offers us voluntary cooperation and defense against aggression, the way America’s Founders first organized the nation.

  18. So it is false feelings of insecurity when we can see attacks all over the world by Muslims and our president letting in as many as possible before he leaves office and if Hillary wins she will continue until we are a mirror of Europe. Sweden has a ten percent population of migrants that came the last decade or two and now Sweden is the rape capitol of the world. Do we doubt that our government will continue to be able to protect us? Hell yeah. Are we scared? Hell no. Are many of us armed here in the US? Hell yeah.

  19. We live in a state of fear. It seems that everything in the media today is about making us feel unsecured and at risk. News blows events way out of proportion (most of the time). Commercials sell by making you fear.
    obat tbc tulang
    Noticed the other day watching the news (almost never do) – It had to be 80% of the commercials were for some kind of drug or “health” item. At one point there were 6 drug commercials in a row. obat kista bartholin

  20. article very interesting and very useful for me, thank you very much admin and pardon me permission to share articles herein may be useful to you in particular are looking for : patah tulang,jerawat

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.