Fearing Fear Itself: Terrorism’s Death Toll in Perspective

“Keep calm and carry on,” instructs the ubiquitous British World War II poster. Seventy five years after the fact, we continue to admire the stiff upper lip the British displayed during the London Blitz, and yet we simultaneously succumb to fear and lose all sense of proportion when faced with a far less menacing threat: terrorism emanating from the Middle East and North Africa.

In the aftermath of the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, Gallup public opinion polls found that, for the first time since the onset of the Great Recession, Americans were more likely to name terrorism than the economy as their primary concern. During the same period as the attacks (November-December 2015), a New York Times/CBS News survey found that Americans were twice as likely to express alarm over the prospect of perishing in a terrorist attack rather than in a mass shooting, even though they are far more likely to die in the latter. In the wake of the March 2016 Brussels terrorist attacks, fear among Americans has not abated.

“In fact, while ISIS and its murderous ideological kin may wish to strike fear in the hearts of all Westerners, we should note something Harvard professor Steven Pinker amply demonstrated in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: we currently live in the least violent time in human history.”

Fear on such a scale is understandable, but irrational. It is understandable because in the wake of terrorist attacks, these are the sole items covered by the news media, especially cable news. Politicians also stoke fear and exaggerate the threat. Senator John McCain is calling for the deployment of 20,000 ground combat troops to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. Presidential aspirant Ted Cruz deems the threat from ISIS serious enough to warrant a “carpet bombing” of the Syrian city of Al-Raqqa and the greater Middle East to determine whether “sand glows in the dark,” an act which would kill an unspeakable number of civilians. Finally, Senator Lindsey Graham implored President Obama to “rise to the occasion” abroad “before we all get killed here at home.”

Yet despite the overwhelming media coverage and political grandstanding, this widespread fear of terrorism is irrational. If you live in the United States or Europe, you are more likely to meet your end by slipping and falling in the bathtub than at the hands of a radical Islamic extremist waging jihad.

Moreover, the likelihood of dying in a car crash or by a non-Islamic, gun-toting criminal is almost infinitely greater. However, we (rightly) still take showers and drive cars. Ultimately, cowering with fear, upending our lives, and distrusting our fellow citizens is the response which radical Islamic extremists wish to provoke. Rather, if we are resilient, keep calm, and go about our lives, we deprive the terrorists of victory.

If the United States contained the Soviet Union and defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, surely ISIS will not undo us. In fact, while ISIS and its murderous ideological kin may wish to strike fear in the hearts of all Westerners, we should note something Harvard professor Steven Pinker amply demonstrated in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: we currently live in the least violent time in human history. Whereas violence today receives more news coverage than ever due to the proliferation of media sources, violent deaths as a percentage of the population are at all-time lows, whether caused by war or crime.

“We learned during the Vietnam War that solely inflicting death on your enemy is insufficient to leaving behind a winning legacy in a foreign land. We learned this lesson again during the Second Gulf War. Let us not permit ISIS to impart the lesson on a third occasion.”

Two examples illustrate this point. The Syrian Civil War, one of the deadliest conflicts raging in the world right now and one of the decade’s most lethal civil wars, has an estimated casualty count of 250,000, according to the United Nations. Nevertheless, such a figure, while horrifying and prolonged over a five-year period, represents merely a quarter of the dead from the Axis powers during the Battle of Stalingrad, which unfolded over the course of a single year. Additionally, the deadliest Islamic fundamentalist terror group in the world is not ISIS, but Boko Haram, headquartered in Nigeria. And yet the thousands upon thousands killed by Boko Haram pale in comparison to the one million dead in the Nigerian Civil War during the late 1960s.

ISIS and its offshoots are frightening, yes, but they are also not invulnerable. We should take heed of this when formulating counter-terror policies. If ISIS really did pose the threat Senator Graham warns of, maybe Senator McCain’s preferred policy of going beyond targeted airstrikes and special operations raids would be merited. But the truth is ISIS is not an existential threat either to the United States or its European allies. Terrorists pursue asymmetric warfare because they are weak and cannot confront us head on. Our military is strong enough to take Raqqa and much of ISIS controlled territory in Syria and Iraq within a matter of days or weeks. However, it remains unclear to whom we would hand over the reins of power the day after our initial victory. We learned during the Vietnam War that solely inflicting death on your enemy is insufficient to leaving behind a winning legacy in a foreign land. We learned this lesson again during the Second Gulf War. Let us not permit ISIS to impart the lesson on a third occasion.

Targeted airstrikes, special operations raids, increased security at soft targets, human and signals intelligence; these items will work over time. In the meantime, citizens in the Unites States and Europe have a mission of their own: keep calm and carry on.

Image: Members of the Iraqi 3rd Battalion, Emergency Response Brigade conduct Counter-Terrorism operations with U.S. Special Operations Forces on Nov. 11 in Babil, Iraq. (USASOC News Service/Flickr, Creative Commons)


Marco F. Moratilla works for New Magellan Venture Partners, LLC, a venture capital firm. He has experience at the National Security Archive and the U.S. House of Representatives. He holds an M.A. in international affairs from The George Washington University and a B.A. in political science from the University of California, San Diego. His work has appeared in International Affairs Review.

 

One comment

Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s