Polls show that Americans fear terrorism more than any other threat. They believe terrorism is the biggest threat to our country’s security. All of this despite the nearly non-existent occurrence of terrorism in the United States, as long as you don’t count domestic terrorism, that is.
Of course we should be concerned about terrorist threats; we should not ignore the risks.
However, fear that reaches the point of paranoia is a danger of its own. Frightened people make poor decisions, blindly follow promises that offer security. Totalitarian movements understand this well. Our enemies understand this. There is more than a kernel of truth to Roosevelt’s counsel that we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.
Earlier today a hunter in Missouri found a stash of explosives hidden off a trail in the woods. Last week Missouri storekeepers reported an unusual number of cell phone purchases by a few individuals. And in other parts of the state propane tanks were reported stolen. Any one of these events happening alone would raise little alarm, any of them happening in a period of social calm would barely be noticed. But now they are taken as signs portending an imminent terrorist attack.
It gets worse.
Violent hysteria dominates public posts on Missouri news sites, literal calls to arms filled with hate. It is this reactionary slant that threatens to tear us apart. This is the real risk and it is dangerous. Under the cover of fear, Americans are losing their sense of security and with it some of their rights and much of their privacy.
Perhaps most damaging is the distraction all of this causes. While we are fighting a supposed war against terrorism, other parts of our democracy are in decline. We’re busy preparing for an uncertain battle while losing another that is indeed real and certain.
If you are truly concerned about America’s future and security, look at what is actually happening in our country. Consider the decline of our country’s middle class and the loss of economic and social opportunity. Millions of Americans have slipped into poverty and after decades of extending life expectancy, that trend is reversing. Middle-aged American men are dying sooner today than a generation ago. Children born today are less likely to climb as their parents once did. Even more shocking, they are now less likely to live to 50 than their peers born in other developed nations for reasons ranging from violence to poor health to poor health care. In short, we have a lot of problems, and terrorism — as long as we continue to ignore domestic terrorism remember — is not the existential threat that other problems create.
We are frightened, irrational, and off the mark. Hardly anything for which to be proud. The real threat to this country is the spread of intolerance and fear, which enables a tacit authoritarianism that does not square with American values of freedom and security. Thankfully terrorism hasn’t been much of a real threat, however it need not be, because even as terrorism fails to do us much direct harm, the fear of terrorism does.