Exaggerated Perceptions of “Threats” Are Threatening to National Security

At the Plum Line today, Paul Waldman poses a very important question in the wake of mounting polling data showing Americans perceive IS as a “threat” to America:

94 percent of Americans think that the Islamic State is at least a somewhat serious threat. Now to return to our question: What does that mean? Does that mean that there is a real possibility that the Islamic State will a) launch attacks on the United States that b) kill large numbers of us? Their interest in and ability to do that, we should be clear, have no relationship whatsoever to how grisly the acts they now commit in Iraq and Syria are.

It isn’t hard to figure out why so many people think the Islamic State threatens the United States. When you see horrifying descriptions and pictures of beheadings, your emotional response can overwhelm any kind of rational reaction. To many people, there’s a large undifferentiated mass of scary foreigners out there, and any news related to terrorism or war anywhere means that we’re more endangered than we were. And then, of course, we have politicians who go around telling any camera they can that we’re all about to die; give props to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for telling a three-year-old girl, “Your world is on fire.”

But guess what: Our world isn’t on fire. Yet it’s almost impossible to say in our contemporary debates that a hostile country or terrorist group isn’t a threat, especially if you’re a politician. Claim that the Islamic State — horrible though it may be — isn’t much of a threat to us, and you’ll be branded naive at best, a terrorist sympathizer at worst.

Now, let’s entertain a truly radical notion: Even if the Islamic State could launch a successful terrorist attack in the United States, that still wouldn’t make them much of a threat. How many Americans could they kill? A dozen? A hundred? That would be horrible. But car accidents kill almost a hundred Americans each and every day.

Perhaps unfortunately, American politicians cannot talk that way. Yes, we’ve been very lucky in that compared with an awful lot of other countries we’ve suffered relatively low military casualties in our wars (aside, of course, from the Civil War), and extremely limited civilian casualties. But ironically, that has produced a low tolerance for risk that in turn is more “emboldening” to terrorists and other enemies than all the objective weaknesses in the world. It is our exaggerated sense of the threat posed by IS that feeds its ambition and sense of power–and potentially its actual power if it obtains leverage over us or our people.

When politicians whip up fears about terrorists, they are actually whipping up vulnerability to terrorists, particularly when they have nothing in the way of any practical strategy for defeating them, beyond insulting their religion and raging at Barack Obama for not making them all disappear.

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.