The Debates and the Question of ISIS: How Safe Are We?

With the 2016 campaign in full swing, candidates are falling over one another do demonstrate that they, better than anyone else, can keep us safe. "Safe from what?" voters might ask. "ISIS, of course," the presidential hopefuls chine in unison, perhaps the only thing on which they agree. Following a month of attacks beginning with the downing of a Russian airline over Sinai and ending with the San Bernardino shooting rampage, the American people might be forgiven for believing that Islamic terrorism poses the greatest threat to the country. The candidates should, however, know better.

How serious a threat is the Islamic State? Where does it fall in a prioritized list of all the states, groups, movements and forces that can hurt us? It may seem strange for someone like me, who has spent over 20 years of my life studying terrorism and more than a decade helping to combat it, to tell you that neither ISIS nor any other extremist group comes close to leading the list of threats to our way of life. Each year both the Pentagon and the White House produce national strategy documents identifying threats and proposing ways to counter them. Every five years the Department of Defense conducts its Quadrennial Review examining the security environment in even greater detail. Google and read those documents and you might be surprised to find how important (or unimportant) terrorism is in the scheme of things.

Sure, ISIS is a cause for concern. It has the ability to hurt us, as we saw in Paris and San Bernardino. It can kill our citizens, temporarily shut down urban areas, and cost us millions of dollars in lost revenue and increased security. The Islamic State is not, however, an existential threat. No terrorist organization has ever risen to that level. The ability of such groups to harm us pales in comparison to a resurgent Russian Federation and a more aggressive China. If we expand our list of threats to include more than violent groups and foreign states, terrorism falls even further down the list. Climate change promises to inundate coastal areas, where 40% of the earth's people live. Drought caused by global warming and the famines it produces are already killing people. In the near future we can expect to see wars over water. Then there is the persistent and pervasive loss of life attributed to gun violence. Approximately 280,000 Americans have been killed by firearms over the past decade.

With so many threats proving so much more lethal, why are politicians and the public alike so fixated on terrorism? For the presidential candidates, the answer is simple: Fear is good politics. A frightened voter is an irrational voter. Convince men and women that they face a mortal threat, and they will support you as long as you promise to keep them safe. Every dictator who ever came to power through democratic means understood this calculus. For ordinary Americans, the question is a bit more complex. I often wonder why people my age who grew up with the ever-present prospect of nuclear annihilation get so worked up over mass shootings. The answer may be that terrorism is somehow profoundly personal. The Soviet arsenal threatened to kill us but ISIS threatens to kill me.

Whatever its cause, though, the exaggerated fear of terrorism is very dangerous. It causes us to waste time, energy, and resources worrying about the wrong things. It makes us susceptible to demagoguery. It can stampede us into giving up civil liberties and spending billions on placebo security, measures that make us feel safe without actually making us safer. Most seriously of all, fear turns us on our neighbors. When the front runner of a major party in a presidential race proposes excluding immigrants based on their religion, we should be afraid, but not of terrorism.