The Homeland and Ignorance About Terrorism

by Paul R. Pillar

Many misconceptions about terrorism prevail among the American public. Occasionally one of these misconceptions gets challenged when hard data conveying a different picture become available. This is true of a recent New America study showing that most of the deaths in the United States from terrorist attacks since September 2001 have been perpetrated not by jihadists or other radical Muslims but instead by white supremacists, antigovernment activists, and other non-Muslim extremists. The discrepancy between such findings and prevalent American beliefs about terrorism can be glaring enough for the discrepancy to become literally a front-page story. But even that sort of attention is insufficient to kill prevailing beliefs—in this case, the belief that terrorism and specifically terrorism that threatens Americans is overwhelmingly a radical Muslim thing. Information similar to that in the New America study has been around for some time; a survey of law enforcement agencies, for example, yielded similar data. The recent multiple killings by a white supremacist in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina has led some to raise a closely related issue of what tends to get called terrorism and what doesn’t. But this incident is another attention-grabbing event that seems again unlikely to overturn the popular notions of who most terrorists are and what they believe.

The misconceptions have multiple roots. The experience of 9/11 unquestionably has been very important in shaping American beliefs. That one event was so salient and traumatic that it has fostered a host of other misconceptions, such as the notion that significant terrorist threats to the United States all began on that one day 14 years ago.

The attitude-shaping effect of 9/11 rested atop longer-standing American ways of perceiving threats to American security, based in large part on the wars of the twentieth century. Americans tend to see the biggest threats to their security coming from alien entities abroad. Jihadist groups based in the Middle East are among the latest such entities to fill this role.

The “war on terror” vocabulary prevalent after 9/11 exacerbated these tendencies. The concept of warring against a tactic never made sense. Making war against al-Qaeda—the perpetrator of 9/11—made more conceptual sense, but it had the further disadvantage of equating, in American minds, terrorism with this one foreign group (a conflation that persisted past the Bush administration and into the Obama administration).

Islamophobia is certainly another factor, despite a widespread reluctance to admit that it is. The dynamic involved is a simple, crude tendency, based on religious and ethnic identities, to be more likely to see threats and evil coming from people with identities different from one’s own. Islamophobia is a significant reality in a predominantly Judeo-Christian America.

Political biases rooted in other interests have been factors as well, including in the tendency to downplay the right-wing extremist threats that the New America study showed to be the source of most terrorist attacks on Americans. In his New York Times article on the study, Scott Shane recalls the episode several years ago in which criticism from conservatives led the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw a report that highlighted a prospective threat of violence from white supremacists during Barack Obama’s presidency—a threat of which the Charleston killings turned out to be one manifestation. Then there were the hearings of the House homeland security committee that were ostensibly about terrorist threats to the homeland but focused entirely on radical Islamism. The committee chairman who specified that scope for the hearings, Representative Peter King, had earlier shown that he had no problem at all with terrorism of the Irish nationalist variety.

The practical and policy consequences of these distortions in thinking about terrorism go beyond Americans not realizing where the greatest threats to their safety come from and extend to foreign policy. The so-called Islamic State or ISIS has displaced Al-Qaeda as the radical Islamist threat du jour in American minds, and this has shifted the whole discourse about policy toward the countries in which ISIS operates in a direction that would not be justified without the mistaken pattern of thinking about terrorist threats to the United States. It is a discourse in which the liberal columnist Richard Cohen, for example, avers that “if the Islamic State survives, the entity that would emerge would more than likely bring the war home to the United States…” That sounds eerily like the “we’ll have to fight them over there or else we will fight them here” framing that has gotten the United States into trouble overseas before.

The equation of terrorism with foreign entities and the intrusion of other political motives means that states are highlighted as sources of terrorism—but only some states: ones that are disliked for other reasons and do not have political support for getting a pass. That is why the official U.S. list of state sponsors has never come close to being an accurate reflection of where sources of active terrorism are to be found. It also is why, with politically strong elements opposing any business with Iran, the theme of Iranian terrorism gets constantly invoked even though the most unambiguous terrorist attacks that Iran has been involved with in recent years have been attempted tit-for-tat reprisals for terrorist attacks that others–who get a pass–have inflicted on Iran.

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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  1. Sadly, people don’t understand statistics. There is a much greater chance in the US of being shot accidentally by a member of your own family than of being harmed in a terrorist attack.
    I live in France where today’s big news is “Terrorist attack, one killed!” Road deaths in this country are around 3,000 per year, but some people still drive like maniacs. I am much more frightened of other road users than I am of terrorists.

  2. Mr. Pillar – Your article implies that few buildings imploding and bodies gunned down means very little to you. Your kind of thinking can lead to another Pearl Harbor. Crude Islamophobia?
    What do you think propels humans to behead, hang and lash people in the streets? When crowds in Europe proclaim the coming of Sharia, is that too far away from you for any concern?
    In the beginning no one took Hitler seriously either. I suggest you read and understand the Koran to understand what Muslims have in mind for you while you idly rock away in your chair.

  3. rg: why are you getting so all hot and bothered about Muslim terrorists. I’m beginning to think you must be working for Sheldon Adelson’s fear mongering dept. Why not let bygones be bygones. Water under the bridge, etc. We’ve forgiven al Qaeda and that 9/11 business. We’re allies with the new and improved al Qaeda in Syria. They’re more “moderate” now. Even Israel is helping al Qaeda with medical aid and assorted air strikes. Israel is even friends with Saudi Arabia.

    Have you hugged a jihadist today? Try it. You may like it.

  4. This is pretty disingenuous because the survey does not include those killed in 9/11. That’s like saying we’re going to count attacks on Pearl Harbor after Pearl Harbor was attacked and lo and behold, there are none! Everyone recognizes the massive security crackdown that occurred after 9/11, including passage of the original Patriot Act and emphasis on homeland security. Not to mention the invasion of Afghanistan, which forced the fight overseas. The report is also flawed because it does not count American deaths overseas. That means we exclude Benghazi and ISIS executions. I don’t think we would call those “workplace violence” incidents.

    But the more important question, which Pillar ignores is maybe it’s time we redefine “terrorism” in the first place. If you don’t classify Ft. Hood or the knife attack in Texas as “Islamic terror” attacks, but you are willing to classify Charleston as a terror act, then we really need to focus more on the causes of these violent acts and less about arguing about what they are called. This includes looking at funding mental health programs (which the Obama administration has basically slashed and burned) and HIPPA laws that restrict our ability to check mental health records against applications for gun permits. In the name of privacy, we’re allowing nut jobs to buy guns.

    We also have to be honest that Islamic extremism is growing not through recruiting and training overseas, but by having young men sit in front of computers and surfing extremist sites and getting radicalized that way. If liberals complain about mass media motivating young people to use guns and conservatives complain about porn motivating young people to have sex, then it certainly stands to reason that we should be doing a better job of monitoring who is surfing these extremist sites. It’s going to be a question — yet again — of much privacy you’re willing to give up to keep people safe.

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