National Security & Defense

Why Terrorism Is More Frightening Than Lightning

It kills fewer individuals, but it strikes at the heart of who we are.

Writing in the pages of Reason on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the science critic Ronald Bailey calculated that since September 12, 2001, “a grand total of 30 Americans” had been “killed in terrorist incidents inside the United States.” The chance of a person in the United States “being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million,” Bailey proposed — odds that are far lower than those pertaining to car accidents (1 in 19,000), bath-time mishaps (1 in 80,000), and building fires (1 in 99,000). Americans, Bailey proposed, are “four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.” “Terrorism,” he concluded, “is a hollow threat.”

This is a popular argument among those who believe that the United States is at present expending too much time, money, and fear in the fight against those who would strike us at home. And, all in all, it is one we should take seriously. In the last few years, figures as various as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, and the Washington Post’s Brad Plumer have struck a similar tone and reached a similar conclusion. “Do you know what scares me more than terrorism?” Friedersdorf asked two years ago, having crunched some numbers. “A polity that reacts to fear by ceding more autonomy and power to its secret police.”

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this judgment. Indeed, up to a certain point, I share such a sentiment myself. Neither, indeed, is there any obvious downside to being reminded that hysteria is unhelpful and that human beings are possessed of an innate bias toward the tragic. As a matter of essential logic, I would question how useful it is to compare accidental or unavoidable deaths with planned executions, and I would like to see a more intellectually rigorous distinction drawn between Acts of Man and Acts of God. But, in broad terms at least, it is true that the chances of an American being killed by a terrorist inside the United States are extraordinarily slim, and it is true that free countries cannot expect to achieve perfect safety without undermining the very liberties that they are hoping to protect. As should be clear by now, I do not want the NSA spying on me more than does any other man.

And yet, as healthy as this skepticism can be, one cannot help but feel that statistical analyses such as those that the War on Terror’s critics like to cite are answers to a question that nobody actually asked. It is undoubtedly reassuring to know that Americans going quietly about their business are more likely to be killed by their furniture than by a man in a mask shouting “Allahu akbar.” But it is also spectacularly besides the point. As we have seen this year in both France and Denmark, unhinged radicals do not need to kill scores of civilians in order to strike meaningfully at our civilization, nor does the lack of a follow-up to 9/11 suggest that liberalism is winning.

As a matter of fact, “how many?” is a much less important question than “who?” and “why?” Tragic as they are, most murders and accidents are local and contained — the product, perhaps, of a personal dispute or a lethal lack of care. If your neighbor shoots his wife dead, you might resolve to hate him for time immemorial, and you might grieve for the loss of a friend. And yet the meaning of the travesty disappears into a puff of smoke the moment he is led away in chains. Accidents carry with them a similar parochialism. When a child perishes in a terrible swimming-pool accident, our tears are rendered all the more bitter by the meaninglessness of the death and the apparent caprice of the gods. But this is not so for killings carried out by terrorists. Those are pregnant with significance.

At present, we are struggling mightily against a cabal of radical Muslim zealots who have taken to executing anybody who opposes their conception of the good life. As we saw in Paris in January — and last weekend in Copenhagen — this enemy is not killing at random but is instead assiduously targeting anybody who dares to mock it and its beliefs. To conclude that we can draw meaningful lessons about the nature of the threat from the tables of Microsoft Excel is, in consequence, somewhat ridiculous. Certainly, the men who shot with varying success at Lars Vilks and Theodore van Gogh and Stéphane Charbonnier are unlikely to kill you. Indeed, in all probability, they don’t even know who you are. But they are killing people who speak for you — or, at least, who have become the representatives of your culture of tolerance, and who prove with their words that your society is good and that it is free. No, you will probably not be caught in the crossfire. But the rounds are being indirectly fired at you, anyhow. James Earl Ray presumably had no plans to assassinate your grandfather. Does this comfort you?

To better comprehend how absurd it is to rely upon statistics when discussing fundamental civilizational fights, imagine that we are discussing the destruction of buildings and not of people. As ghastly and as harrowing as the events of 9/11 were, it was the case nevertheless that most of America’s cities survived the attack. Indeed, even if the perpetrators had successfully hijacked and crashed 100 planes, most of the landmass of the United States would have remained happily untouched by the invaders. Given a free hand, it seems reasonable to imagine that the killers would have gone after other great American landmarks — adding to their victories at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center by hitting the White House, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Mount Vernon, the Sears Tower, Arlington Cemetery, the Alamo, the Empire State Building, Hollywood, Mount Rushmore, Disney World, and Las Vegas. And yet the 14,157 McDonalds restaurants that are dotted around the country would almost certainly have been safe, as would the homes of almost all 310 million people who live here. In addition, most of the libraries, charities, community churches, ball fields, malls, diners, gas stations, and hotels — all those institutions that make up America’s civil society, that is — would have remained intact, too. Would the citizens of remote Boise, Idaho, have been comforted by this? Had George W. Bush appeared on television in the evening to inform his fellow citizens that their communities were, statistically speaking, unaffected by the events of the day, would he have invited praise or would he have provoked guffaws and incredulity? Clearly, no sensible civilization thinks in this way.

On the contrary. Rather than thrilling at the news that their Dairy Queen had made it through and that their friends and family were alive, Americans would have grieved for the loss of their national landmarks and for the destruction of the symbols that, together, make this country what it is. They would have mourned for their fellow citizens, too — however far away they were, and however few of them had been killed. (“Only” three people died at the Boston Marathon bombing, remember.)

This, I daresay, would be entirely natural, for when we talk of American exceptionalism, we are not usually talking of ourselves or of our own property or our cliques, but of the places and rules that do not always touch us. As one can mourn the World Trade Center even if one never went there — or even wanted to — one can reasonably feel a genuine kinship with those who are in the crosshairs of international terrorism. I may not like his behavior, but when I watch an eccentric such as Florida’s Terry Jones burn a holy book with impunity, I am at one level thrilled to note that such a disliked figure can stick his head above the parapet and be met with nothing more serious than scorn. This is not because I agree with Jones’s conduct, but because my own security is bound up in his, and the freedom of his conscience is inextricably linked with the freedom of mine. I know somewhere that I may wish to push my own nose above the line one day, and that if I do, I will expect the favors of tolerance and mutual protection to be returned. When Jones is targeted by bullies and zealots — and when his life is threatened for his speech, as it has been — I cannot help but take it personally, for that could well be me. All in all, it is wholly irrelevant that al-Qaeda has only two Americans on its published list of targets if those Americans are the only two that it has decided should not be able to speak. That is two Americans too many. In this country, we permit people to follow their hearts, and we expect them to be tolerated when they do so. If they are killed for speaking their mind, we all are killed.

Within our domestic politics, we instinctively understand this. Suppose that that ever-elusive “right-wing terrorist” fulfilled MSNBC’s greatest fears and killed President Obama and Harry Reid. Suppose, too, that the assassin confessed to having done so on political grounds. What would be our immediate reaction? It would not, I daresay, be to compare the killings to the broader murder statistics, or to establish that their deaths represented but a drop of water in the larger criminal pool. Instead, we would recognize that Obama and Reid had been chosen because they were the representatives of more than half the country, and that the killer had sought to erase that representation from the national debate. Quickly, we would insist that this is not how we do things here.

Certainly, many of al-Qaeda’s targets are less popular than the president of the United States, but I do not see a considerable difference between this ugly hypothetical and the targeting of Terry Jones or Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Salman Rushdie — or anybody else who should be free to speak even though our enemies want them dead. President Obama is at present the most prominent representative of America’s democratic component; Jones, Ali, and Rushdie are the most prominent exponents of America’s libertarian framework — living, breathing proof of our civilizational greatness and our extraordinary political tolerance. When barbarians run down their enemies list, crossing off the West’s free thinkers, they are targeting millions upon millions of us and attempting to instill fear in those whose hats are still ducked below the lip of the trench. When this happens, we all come under attack — not just the few who, in another unlucky life, were hit on the way to the grocery store by a stray bolt of lightning.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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