When The Next Attack Happens….

I’m going to bookmark a Paul Waldman post at the Prospect today, and you should, too, against the day, which we’d be foolish not to anticipate, when there is another newsworthy (in scale, location, drama or ferocity) terrorist attack on “the homeland.” As Waldman notes, Americans’ fear of terrorism already defies reality, but it would go off the charts if another big domestic event happened:

Imagine it’s six months from now. A 19-year-old man—whom we’ll later learn was in communication with members of ISIL in the Middle East—walks on to the Mall in Washington on a weekend afternoon. Groups of tourists are walking about from one monument to another. He takes his backpack off his shoulders, reaches in, and removes the semiautomatic rifle he bought a month before at a gun show in Virginia, where he didn’t have to submit to a background check (though it wouldn’t have mattered, because his record is clean). He opens fire on the crowd, and before U.S. Park Police are able to reach him and put him down, he has killed six people and wounded eleven others. In his pocket is a note announcing his devotion ISIL, and that he is striking at the United States in retaliation for its illegal war on the true Muslims building a caliphate in Syria and Iraq….

Most of us appreciate, at least intellectually, that our chance of dying in a terrorist attack is approximately zero, and even if it increases, that increase would mean it has gone from approximately zero all the way up to pretty much zero. But that’s not how we act and react. So let’s go back to that attack, and consider what would happen in response. It would be the biggest news story of the year, every report emphasizing that it happened “just steps from the White House and the Capitol building.” The news media would amp up the fear to levels we haven’t seen in the last decade, encouraging everyone to look for sleeper cells lurking down at the Piggly Wiggly. Republicans would of course unite behind President Obama in our time of mourning—kidding! They’d go on TV to denounce him for being so weak that the evildoers struck us in our very heart, and proclaim not only that the blood of the victims is on the hands of every Democrat, but that more attacks are coming and we’re more vulnerable than we’ve ever been. Dick Cheney would emerge snarling from his subterranean lair to warn us that this is only the beginning and we really need to start bombing at least five or six more countries. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already said about ISIL that “this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home,” might just tear off his shirt and scream, “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!” right on Fox News Sunday.

And the public would follow right along. In a recent CNN poll, 41 percent said they were very or somewhat worried that they or a member of their family would be a victim of terrorism—which, to repeat, is about as likely as they or a member of their family getting hit by a falling piano. This number hasn’t changed much in years (five years ago it was 36 percent), all accumulated evidence to the contrary. But one successful attack is all it would take to push that number comfortably past a majority. In the last year, the number of people telling the Pew Research Center that government anti-terror policies have not gone far enough to protect us has increased from 39 percent to 50 percent (among Republicans it’s gone from 41 percent to 64 percent), despite the fact that the only terrorist attacks in that time came from a crazed man who wanted to kill TSA agents and a couple of right-wing extremists in Nevada.

And one can only imagine the kind of public policies, at home and abroad, a new terror panic might encourage.

Perhaps because I was living in Washington–spending most of each day and night on Capitol Hill–on and after 9/11, but I can understand the fear to some extent. I remember the drone of military aircraft patrolling Washington becoming a part of the background to life for a while, virtually unnoticed. I recall having a spike of fear when walking by Donald Rumsfeld’s Capitol Hill townhouse. I still think of looking at Graham Allison’s website showing the consequences of a “dirty bomb” for various DC neighborhoods (depending on the wind patterns!). And when I finally stopped living and working in Washington altogether, I’d say relief at no longer feeling that fear was fourth or fifth on the list of reasons I was pleased by the change of scenery.

I don’t have the fear at all any more, and I wonder why Americans who don’t, say, live in New York or Washington, the most obvious targets now as in 2001, still seem to feel it acutely. Or perhaps they feel it latently, only to have it surge to the surface when fanatics behead a journalist on the other side of the world.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.