The reality of terrorism

Loved this Vox interview with Peter Bergen, who has written a new book on terrorism and Jihad.  Really interesting discussion of why a violent Jihadi actually becomes one and tries to kill people (short answer: it’s complicated and hard to explain).  But, I found this part on the overall threat of terrorism worth highlighting here:

There’s a sort of paradox here: Americans are more concerned about terrorism now than at any time since 9/11, yet really the actual threat is contained and managed. But as a political matter, no one’s going to say that who’s running for office. Even though it’s true, and any sensible person knows that we’ve managed this problem pretty well, no politician is going to say we have this thing pretty well under control, because the political costs of something very minor happening later, which can somehow be associated with ISIS or al-Qaeda, are very large. [emphasis mine]

Two things are true: The problem is going to be persistent, yet at the same time we’ve managed it into a situation where it’s pretty contained and low-level, and that’s why the main threat is homegrown militants who are often very hard to detect.

The good news is that there’s a certain kind of ceiling to their capabilities in terms of what kind of damage they can do. And as you point out, it’s orders of magnitude lower than what it would have been on 9/11…

PB: The problem, of course, is that we’re not all rational human beings. We still have this brain that was extremely useful for getting around in the forest 20,000 years ago. Fear is very front and center, and so when the fear part of our brain is aroused, it tends to muffle our rationality.

Because from a rational perspective, fear of terrorists doesn’t make any sense at all. I say this in the book: You’re 5,000 times more likely to be killed by a fellow American with a gun than you are by jihadist terrorists. So what you should be fearing is somebody killing you with a gun.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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