A Reality Check on the Threat of Terrorism

This campaign season the Republicans – including Donald Trump – have built their entire brand on scaring the American public about the so-called “radical Islamic threat.” Remember back in the presidential primaries when Christie’s line was that the “world is on fire?” Or how about when Rubio said that the world “has never been more dangerous than it is today?” Trump’s “midnight in America” speech at the Republican Convention was largely based on ramping up fears about terrorism both here and abroad.

All of that is why I appreciated this reality check from Margot Sanger-Katz yesterday.

If it feels as if terrorism deaths are rising in the West, it’s because they are. Yet the numbers remain relatively small, and globally, deaths from terrorism appear to be declining, not rising.

According to two big databases, the number of people who died in terror attacks in North America and Western Europe rose markedly in 2015, claiming more than 200 lives. This year, according to one count, it is on track to be even worse.

But terrorism in the West is rare. In the parts of the world where it is more common — deaths in those regions are in the thousands rather than the dozens — terror attacks appear to be decreasing.

And as bad as terrorism has been in the West recently, it was worse in the 1970s and 1980s.

Here is how the global comparison looks in chart form:

Sanger-Katz says that terrorism in the West was worse in the 1970’s and 80’s. Here is a graph to demonstrate:

If you’re wondering what the numbers look like in the U.S., here you go:

In the United States, the terrorism threat is even smaller than it is in the West generally. With the exception of the huge Sept. 11 and Oklahoma City attacks, there is no year since 1970 when terrorism killed more than 50 people in the United States. Last year, the number was 44, according to the Global Terrorism Database. That means that terrorism typically kills about as many Americans as lightning strikes do.

This is not meant to discount the fact we must work with the rest of the world to deal with groups like ISIS. But some perspective is surely in order. We need to recognize why so many Americans believe that the threat is so much greater than it really is. Republicans have been ramping up the fear of terrorism ever since 9/11. Given that they have so little by way of policies and accomplishments to run on – it’s pretty much all they’ve got this year. Whether you want to call that an outright lie or an exaggeration is up to you. But they’re certainly not telling the truth.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.