When it comes to terrorism, how did we suddenly become such a nation of scaredy cats?
Sure, each of us has our own private set of fears—things that add unwelcome tension to our day and maybe even keep us up at night. Some of these are perfectly rational, while others seem to have been invented from whole cloth.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly know a few things that frighten me. Failure. Poverty. Writer’s block. Cancer. Bugs.
But you know one thing that doesn’t scare me at all? Being killed in a terrorist attack.
On any given day, I am far more concerned about a beetle wandering into my bed than a suicide bomber wandering onto my subway car. Why? Because I’m a reasonably logical human being who realizes that the former is infinitely more likely than the latter, and I’m not about to waste my time fretting about every last terrible thing that could possibly happen to me.
Could I find myself in some kind of active shooter/bomber/hostage situation? Sure, why not? Bad guys exist and somebody has to be their victim. I lived in New York on September 11, 2001, and in Boston on April 15, 2013, so I’m not entirely naïve about the horrors that Islamic (and non-Islamic) extremists can unleash upon unwitting bystanders.
All the same, there is something to which I am equally attuned: statistics.
You’ve read the actuarial tables. All things equal, each of us is roughly 35,000 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack. Heck, we are 350 times likelier to die from gravity (read: falling off a roof) and four times likelier to be struck by lightning. According to at least one study, the average American’s lifetime odds of being killed as the result of terrorism are approximately 1 in 20 million.
On one level, these numbers serve as amusing, if abstract, pieces of trivia. On a deeper level, they reflect what a colossal waste of time it is to actively fear being caught up in an act of mass violence. The probability of such a thing are so remote, you might as well get worked up over being eaten by Bigfoot.
And yet, from a new poll, a record-high number of Americans claim to be more fearful of terrorism now than at any time since September 11, 2001. Thanks to the atrocities in Paris and San Bernardino—and the increasing reach of ISIS in general—the super-low risk of being the victim of a similar attack now strikes many of us as entirely feasible, if not outright imminent.
It’s not, and it never will be. Get it together, people. Don’t be such drama queens. Keep calm and…well, you know.
Look: I watch Woody Allen movies. I understand that if someone is determined to freak out about an imaginary bogeyman, there’s nothing you can do to stop them. Then there’s the fact that this particular bogeyman is not completely a figment of our collective imagination. In Syria and Iraq, it’s a lot worse than that.
But realize that, here in America, by being afraid of a hypothetical attack by a gang of faceless, radical Muslims, you are—by definition—letting the terrorists win.
Not to get too cute or cliché, but the object of terrorism is to generate terror. For the jihadist, committing random mass murder is the means, not the ends. Whenever a follower of ISIS or al Qaeda opens fire in a crowded marketplace or plants a bomb on a city bus, the point isn’t merely to kill a bunch of people; rather, it’s to make everyone else nervous about entering a marketplace or boarding a bus, because, hey, they might be next.
George W. Bush was absolutely right to say that the best way to fight back is to continue going about our lives as if nothing has changed. In the most fundamental sense, nothing has: America remains an exceptionally open society in which all citizens can come and go as they please. Our economy and armed forces continue to be the envy of the world. The First Amendment is in such strong shape that a private business denying service to gay people is now considered a form of free expression. And—sorry to be so repetitive—the likelihood of being personally affected by terrorism is all but microscopic.
To be sure, the government does not have the same luxury as individuals to adopt such a blasé attitude toward the global struggle against violent extremism (or whatever you want to call it). Having the means to actually disrupt organized crime originating in the Middle East, our military and intelligence agencies are obligated to take the ISIS threat seriously, thereby giving us private citizens the freedom to leave our houses every morning with the confidence that we will return in one piece.
But here’s the main point: There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t adopt this optimistic attitude anyway. There is much our government can do to keep us safe, but there is just as much that it can’t. Islamic terrorism—like Christian terrorism—cannot be eliminated completely. More perpetrators will fall through the cracks and more innocent people will be killed.
But so what? There’s very little we civilians can contribute to this struggle—other than the whole “see something, say something” initiative, which has produced mixed results—so where’s the stock in being terrified? Death itself is unavoidable, and death by terrorism is on roughly the same plane of probability as death by asteroid—and nearly as futile to prevent in advance.
What we should do, then, is take a cue from Franklin Roosevelt, who in January 1941 outlined the “four freedoms” to which all inhabitants of the Earth should be entitled. While he merely plagiarized from the First Amendment for two of them—“freedom of speech” and “freedom of worship”—and paraphrased the Constitution’s preamble for the third—“freedom from want”—the fourth was an invention all his own: “freedom from fear.”
Whatever such a concept meant at the outset of World War II—a reduction in global arms, mostly—today we can accept it as a right we grant to ourselves: The freedom to go about our lives as if they were actually controlled by us.