How Safe Are We?

Asking the Right Questions About Terrorism

A member of the NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force patrols in Times Square in the Manhattan borough in New York, March 22, 2016. Stephanie Keith / Reuters

Are we safer?” might be the most common question asked about terrorism, but it is the wrong one. A better place to begin is with this question: “How safe are we?”

In evaluating the threat from terrorism, it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that, although such violence presents a concern for the United States, the scope of the hazard is so limited that it is a considerable stretch to even label it a “threat.”

For a time, of course, this perspective was severely challenged by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which inflicted damage that was decidedly not limited. If attacks like that had become common, even routine, everything would have changed. But it didn’t. Although “we can’t have another 9/11” remains a conversation stopper, that event remains an extreme outlier: scarcely any terrorist deed before or since has visited even one-tenth as much destruction, even in war zones where terrorist groups have plenty of space and time to plot and assemble.

Much of the public fear about terrorism centers on the possibility that radical groups, particularly al Qaeda, might acquire nuclear weapons—the imminent danger of which we have been warned about for 15 years. However, no terrorist group has gotten anywhere near going atomic, and, even more telling, none seems to have really even tried.

A note is pictured at a pop-up memorial in San Bernardino, California December 4, 2015.
A note is pictured at a pop-up memorial in San Bernardino, California December 4, 2015. Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
In the years since 9/11, Islamist terrorists have managed to kill about seven people a year within the United States. All those deaths are tragic of course, but some comparisons are warranted: lightning kills about 46 people a year, accident-causing deer another 150, and drownings in bathtubs around 300.

During that period, al Qaeda Central’s achievements have been rather meager, even taking into consideration that it has been isolated and under siege. An analysis of the major terrorist plots against the West since 9/11 finds only two—the attempted shoe bombing in 2001 and the effort to blow up transatlantic airliners with liquid bombs in 2006—that could be said to have been under the command and control of al

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