One Nation Under Fear? How Dangerous is Terrorism to the USA?

  The images from Boston were horrific.  What could be worse than seeing athletes in their prime have their bodies torn apart for no reason at all.  This is a national tragedy and an important moment in U.S History.  However, over at my twitter account (3WCHOG) I asked the question: "Will the USA experience terrorism fatigue?" By that I mean, is it really possible for us to continue to stay in such paralyzed fear about terrorism in the United States? I wonder if it's psychologically sustainable for a free society to do that for another decade.

One Nation Under Fear?

No matter how dangerous terrorism is, we're going on Year 12 of this hyper-vigilance and climate of fear. It's interesting to compare the USA with European countries (and others) that have sustained much more serious waves of terrorism: The UK, Northern Ireland, Spain, Sri Lanka etc. After the 2005 7/7 bombings, London continued to flourish without expressing much concern about security in their local psyche.  To be sure security has gotten even tighter in the UK--but the Brit attitude as always was "Keep Calm, Carry On."

I very much admire how London/UK went back to normal after 2006 Bombings. Part of winning against terrorism is not living in constant fear.

Why does America panic so easily? I think its paradoxically because it is a country that has never faced an existential threat like Russia Germany, China, The Koreas, Japan, or the UK. Protected by 2 large Oceans and 2 peaceful, not well-armed neighbors, the US geographically has never faced anything like the Napoleonic Wars or Stalingrad or the air raids over britain. All of which were at the end of centuries of war, threats, and counter-threats. The USA has had it relatively easily--it's wars have been mostly by choice and far from American shores.  Pearl Harbor happened before Hawaii was a state.

The TSA is an example of extreme over-reaction as were the multi-colored threat levels that we lived with for 10 years even though nobody knew which color was what threat level on any given day and I think we were always on only yellow or red.

Yes, it's true that there have been several plots foiled since 9/11 on US soil and some attacks like the Fort Hood incident. But what we've also learned since 9/11 is that terrorist attacks are not easy to pull-off, and they often attract troubled people who don't execute them well.  We have found that normal citizens are often very alert about unusual activity and law enforcement officials in America are very, very good at their jobs (not the TSA, however).  Furthermore, the average human being (that includes Muslims) is just not interested in blowing apart cute children or themselves.  We have greatly over-estimated how many people are evil in this world, and under-estimated how many people are willing to rush toward an explosion in Boston to help the neighbors in need.

In my first two books (Passport of Faith & Faith in the Future), I argued that 9/11 was a truly significant moment and that assymetrical terrorism is a very real threat.  After a decade of seeing the benefits of globalization, 9/11 showed the other-side:  how a newly, globalized world could create networks of global evil.  Threatened by modernization and secularization, fundamentalist groups of all types arose, in what I call the counter-reaction to globalization.  Part of that counter-reaction has been Islamic militancy and a desire for Islamic fascism in parts of the world.  The same innovative technology that is making the world a more connected place, creating longer life expectancies and bringing down poverty rates to levels never seen in human history; will have another side to it.  Assymetrical terrorism will not go away and it will be quite lethal at times.

But as we look closer, there are a few things we must notice.  Not only have the bulk of terrorist attacks been perpetrated by Muslims killing other Muslims in places like Iraq, but terrorism has actually gone down since 9/11 and nothing has spiked terrorist attacks quite like the Iraq War (within Iraq).  The Boston attacks, on the other hand, show us how something like social networks in an organized society like the United States, have the power to quickly corner villains.  An entire nation quickly mobilized on the internet to protect a city.  Suicide bombings may be the only "attractive option" in the future if this is the kind of national mobilization that can take place at a moment's notice.

And then we return to the fact that most people simply don't want to kill themselves.  Most humans, regardless of religion, are afraid of death and their body tries to avoid it at all costs.  As I argued in an article I wrote entitled "the Future is Singapore," I do think that it is possible that in the future assymetrical threats like bio-terrorism, environmental terrorism, and other dangers will create highly-regulated "First world" societies that are pretty cut off from the more anarchic, underdeveloped world. It would be a world in which the wealthy would trade civil liberties for security.  I believe this may happen, however, we are not there yet and when that happens, it may be generated more by a desire to protect wealth than fear of death.  Our current threats are not the ones that get us to that place.

A Tale of Two Explosions

It was jarring to see the destruction in Texas at the same time as the Boston attacks.  One was accidental and seemed to have destroyed an entire town, caused 200 casualties and killed more people. The other one, so far, is had less damage but seemed to be taken as a more symbolic and existential threat--more dangerous.  What was jarring was the huge number of injured and killed in Texas.  We've seen big numbers before 9/11.  More people were killed by the Southern California Quake in Northridge and by the San Francisco Earthquake of 1980 than were killed and injured in Boston.  Then there was Hurricane Katrina which nearly wiped an entire American city off the map!!  Yet Boston may somehow be harder on the American psyche.

The American psyche is not fatalistic.  Neither is it comfortable with the idea that many other cultures have which is that:  "things happen.  If it's your time, it's your time."  America is deeply offended by the idea that something wrong, or someone wrong can take our life.  Death seems far away from America, even though it's not.  Cancer rates are high, rates of people killed by guns (no matter where you stand on the issue) are extremely high daily, and auto fatalities are very high daily.  All of these kill more people annually than a few 9/11's.  Yet it is being attacked by a foreign power (of which there really are none that can truly compete with us--and yes, that includes the radically over-estimated China and the deeply impoverished North Korea), that most disturbs the American psyche.  Once again, this seems to be a complex that comes from a nation that was blessed with a geography and only 2 militarily weak neighbors which have enabled it to live far more peacefully than most every other country in the world.  Nevertheless, the United States spends more than the next Top 10 military powers combined.  We outspend China 6 to 1 and our military hardware is far more advanced than theirs.  So the 6 to 1 ration doesn't even do our military superiority over China justice.  The bulk of China's military spending is to prevent internal rebellions (of which there are more than 100,00 each year), not have show-downs against other world powers.  China has never, in its 5,000 year history showed much of an interest in being a territory expanding global power the way the U.S. has. Even their push for natural resources is not an effort to gain satellites, but to secure raw materials.  The Chinese have alway been quite China-centric;  something that the Founding Fathers of the United States would have applauded fearing excessive foreign entanglements as they did.

The true "Clash of Civilizations" occurring right now is a clash within a civilization:  Islam.  And the other great clash of our time is that of Fundamentalism against modernity.  Elections all over the world show this trend--part of that counter-action I wrote about in 2006.  With 2 long wars winding down, a huge debt, and a lot of domestic challenges, one wonders whether the United States will really be into going into a hyper-vigilant state of alertness against terrorism.  Or will the tide start to turn as Americans realize that some forms of terrorism are here to stay and unless you want to cancel the Super Bowl, stop flying on airplanes, or go outside, some form of risk will be required.

The media has been sensationalistic and irresponsible.  One CNN reporter complained about getting yelled at by a police officer while the officer was trying to do his job to protect the reporter!  The other networks are no better.  Fear sells and we are a society that rewards hype.  Only in the United States could an inane, drama queen like Kim Kardashian become a multi-million dollar industry (not just a millionaire, but an industry with sibling franchises).  But let me make it clear: the law enforcement officials in Boston are stellar.  And this is further reason to have our fear in the USA reduced a notch or two in the coming years.  In the post-9/11 world, America's first responders, different policing agencies, hospitals, and cities and towns are prepared to make difficult judgement calls under duress and provide a rapid response.  We saw this at Sandy Hook.  Americans are prepared for whatever comes our way.  We should feel comforted by how amazingly mobilized our law enforcement officials were, not paralyzed by panic.

The great image of Boston and of 9/11 is not of Americans running in fear from evil madmen.  The great image of both tragedies is of Americans running toward each other to help.  Americans of all sizes, colors, and creeds who care about their neighbors.  That is what the terrorist fear; societies that can skillfully navigate the complicated 21st Century.  They cannot, so they seek to destroy it.  But it's a losing battle.  They are not hardwired to win this battle.

Why should we be afraid of them?  As FDR once said:  "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  Never has that been more true than today.