Two U.S. Army National Guard men stand guard among travelers at Penn Station on December 22, 2015 in New York City. Security is still high at landmarks and tourist areas around Manhattan since the November Paris terrorist attacks that killed over 100 people. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
Years ago, Walt Kelly's "Pogo" was a very popular comic strip. Pogo was a swamp creature made famous by his sardonic witticisms about human nature. The strip was immortalized by the declaration that "we have met the enemy and he is us!"
Currently, many Americans seem self-absorbed and even obsessed by the fear of Islamist terrorism. The murders in San Bernardino, California and earlier in Chattanooga, Tennessee have been exploited and exaggerated by politicians, especially those running for president, playing on public dread of terrorist attacks. Beyond Pogo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wisdom applies.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." FDR was admonishing his fellow citizens not to succumb to irrational fears brought on by the Great Depression of 1929 and the hardships Americans were facing regarding their economic well-being. Of course, words of encouragement were no substitute for a paycheck and for food on the table.
National anxiety over the threat of homegrown terrorist attacks needs an antidote. That antidote combines fact and reason. Since September 11th, Islamist attacks here have claimed fewer than fifty American lives. By comparison, over the past fourteen years in America, car accidents have killed nearly half a million people and a more or less equal number died from gun violence. The chances of being shot by a police officer or hit by lightning are orders of magnitude greater than being killed by a Jihadi.
If opinion polls correctly reflect American attitudes, why are so many of us genuinely worried about being killed or wounded in a terrorist incident when the chances are remote? In September and October 2002, the so-called Beltway snipers, John Malvo and John Mohammed, terrorized the Washington, D.C. region killing ten innocent citizens. These shootings followed a cross-country murder spree that began in Tacoma, Washington. People were in a state of panic until Malvo and Mohammed were arrested.
The specter of a massive Islamist biological or chemical weapons attack or taking down a portion of the electrical power grid is even more nightmarish. In the run up to the 2003 Iraq War, the George W. Bush administration made reference to "mushroom shaped clouds" to help sell the case to the public. Unfortunately, this hype began to condition Americans to the possibility of a major or catastrophic terrorist attack.
In a rational world, Americans would have a lot less to fear. Many more were killed, for example, in the Sandy Hook, Connecticut shootings although the killer was not an Islamist terrorist. So is death by terrorist a distinction without a difference? Does it matter that killers may be deranged or dangerously misguided such as Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City twenty years ago, killing 168 and injuring about 600 others?
The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars improving its law enforcement and intelligence capabilities against terrorists of all stripes. No system is perfect and it is unreasonable to think that occasional Jihadi terrorist will not self-radicalize or enter the country legally as did the September 11th bombers. The truth is that these dangers are not new. At prior times in the nation's history, terrorists threatened the nation and Americans overreacted.
Four presidents have been assassinated. Just after World War I, a handful of letter bombs threw the country in panic even though only two people died. "Red scares" persisted through the Cold War.
In each case, these fears were greatly exaggerated. Indeed, revoking legitimate visas to put Muslims on "no-fly" lists banning entry to America is symptom of this fear. What can be learned?
First, as crime and violent crime will never be fully eliminated, Jihadist attacks remain possible. Second, while a catastrophic terror attack can never be discounted, the likelihood of Americans being killed by Jihadis, homegrown or otherwise, is exceedingly small, and far less than being harmed by some gun or automobile incident. Third, politicians will play the fear card in most cases not understanding that the damage being done far outweighs the actual danger.
By demonstrating fear, Islamist terrorists are empowered. While that may have no actual effect on the likelihood of attacks, in the propaganda and psychological campaigns, al-Qaida and the Islamic State are both winning and will continue to exploit these fears.
Both Pogo and FDR were correct. Americans must understand that while danger exists, exaggerating that danger makes our enemies stronger and amplifies their perverted, siren-like call for attracting more recruits. Tragically, fear has become a greater menace than the actual threat of terrorism.
Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist; Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC's Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security (BENS). His latest book is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.