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

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