Blessings of Peace
Why is there so little terrorism in the United States?

A street memorial in Boston


Kevin D. Williamson

There is no accounting for the thinking of an Osama bin Laden or a Bill Ayers. But Mr. Hill’s case points to a particularly salient point about criminal violence in the United States: The greater part of it is utterly predictable. Events such as 9/11 or the Boston bombing may catch us by surprise, but the day-in, day-out murder and mayhem associated with many American cities should not. Mr. Hill had a long criminal record and had been arrested on charges of attempted murder (the charges were reduced, and he received a suspended sentence). Some 90 percent of the murderers in New York City between 2003 and 2005 had criminal records, as did about half of the victims. Similar numbers have been found in studies of other cities. In Chicago, that pattern has become something of an inevitability: In the high-profile case of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was gunned down in a park shortly after attending Barack Obama’s second inauguration, police have arrested a young man already on probation for firearms charges. These killers do not fall out of the sky: We know who they are. That we choose to do so little about it is an indictment of our criminal-justice system.

A third factor in explaining why we don’t have more low-level terrorism is that U.S.-based terrorist groups may not be much interested in attacking civilians. Al-Qaeda slaughters civilians indiscriminately, but potential domestic terrorists such as revolutionary militias and environmental extremists in general do not. (Buzzfeed recently carried a very interesting report in which militia leaders denounced the Boston attack.) Violent antigovernment groups are interested in attacking government targets, violent environmental groups tend to target corporate facilities, and animal-rights groups like to hit research laboratories. Many potential government targets, such as police stations, are hard by nature, while others have been hardened over the years, as have security-conscious corporate and research facilities. In that sense, the arithmetic may be on the side of law and order: The people most inclined and able to commit acts of terrorism are attracted to the targets best prepared against them, whereas the people inclined to attack schools or movie theaters are few and disorganized.

The worst-case scenario, which is by no means unlikely, is that the disciplined and organized turn their attention to the softest targets. Boston reminds us that responding to such a development would be a difficult thing indeed.

Much of the new security regimen that has been implemented post-9/11 is focused on spectaculars and attacks on high-profile targets. Keeping in mind that hindsight is famously acute, remember that both 9/11 and the heinous murders at Newtown might have been prevented by the most old-fashioned of security measures: having a sturdy door and locking it. (Sandy Hook Elementary School had locked doors, but the doors were glass, and Adam Lanza simply shot through them.) But there is very little in place to prevent a loosely coordinated series of low-level attacks, Boston-level bombings in a dozen cities at once.  

There is not a great deal that a free society can do to combat that: A committed group of terrorists willing to give up their own lives in exchange for ideological or religious satisfaction can bring any open society to its knees — that is the unpleasant fact. But that does not mean that there is nothing at all we can do. The best-organized terrorist threat remains Islamist, and Islamist terror is at least in some part international by nature. Proper vetting of visa applicants, rigorous policing of those who overstay their visas, and, if necessary, severe restrictions on travel to the United States from Islamist hotbeds such as Pakistan and Egypt would go a long way toward ensuring that Islamist violence remains a largely overseas phenomenon. Unlike Israel, the United States is not vulnerable to rocket attacks from an adjacent Sinai; Islamist terrorists need to be here to do much damage, and keeping them out should be the first priority of all of our border and immigration authorities. If that means inconveniencing a great number of well-intentioned travelers from Cairo or students from Islamabad, so be it. That is the more humane option: A six-month wait for a visa surely is preferable to a drone circling overhead.

Domestically, the problem appears at the moment to be manageable, and the best response is the same as the response to common crime: continued rigorous enforcement of offenders and making maximum use of sophisticated data-analysis techniques in prevention. Many of our domestic terrorists and would-be terrorists have seen their political organizations superseded by frankly criminal outfits — e.g., the displacement of the Aryan Nations terrorist group by the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang in the white-supremacist ecosystem. This makes extremist tendencies both easier to police and their adherents less likely to engage in violence for reasons other than profit. Given a choice between a mafia and a terror cell, we should prefer the mafia.

Whether the relative scarcity of domestic terrorism in the United States is evidence that we are good at counterterrorism or just lucky is not entirely clear. What we do know is that it is the nature of unexpected events to be unexpected. Our part is to prepare for what can be prepared for and to anticipate what can be anticipated, all the while bearing in mind how much that leaves unaccounted for.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review. His newest book, The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome, will be published in May.