President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to restrict refugee admissions and deny visas to individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries his administration deems a terrorist risk ― Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.
This is a dramatic and misdirected overreaction to a relatively small-scale problem. Since 9/11, there have been no fatalities in the United States by extremists with family backgrounds in any of these countries. None of the 9/11 hijackers were from these countries either.
What about plots that did not lead to fatalities? According to a database that I maintain on Islamists involved with violent extremism in the U.S., fewer than a quarter have family backgrounds in one of these countries.
Over the past 15 years, Islamist extremists have killed an average of eight people a year in the United States. This death toll is less than one tenth of one percent of the 240,000 murders that the country has suffered since 9/11. Thus, Trump’s visa limit will not increase public safety. Instead, it continues the trend of government responses to terrorism that are widely out of sync with the scale of the threat.
“Since 2001, there have been zero fatalities in the U.S. by extremists from the countries on Trump's list.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has 6,853 agents working on counterterrorism, almost exactly the same as the 6,857 working in counterterrorism in 2004, when the agency thought – incorrectly, as it turned out ― that several hundred al Qaeda operatives were already on U.S. soil. (Only five possible al Qaeda operatives were ever identified.) The yield from this $1.9 billion annual investment is sparse: only three dozen Islamist extremists were indicted for violent extremism in the U.S. over the past year, plus a similar or lower number of non-Muslims.
Perhaps counterterrorism programs are deterring extremists from considering violence and disrupting plots that never make it to public attention. But even if 10 plots were secretly prevented for every plot we know about, that would mean more than a dozen counterterrorism agents for every Islamist extremist arrested in 2016.
According to a cost-benefit analysis by two professors, political scientist John Mueller and civil engineer Mark G. Stewart, the federal government spends approximately $75 billion each year on counterterrorism. In purely financial terms, these efforts would have to disrupt a 9/11-scale attack every four years to be deemed cost-effective. Yet no 9/11-scale plots have been detected in the past 15 years.
The massive response to counterterrorism exacts a cost to liberty as well as tax dollars. The National Security Agency, we now know, collected Americans’ telephone, e-mail and other internet records for years through secret programs that were revealed by Edward Snowden. NSA director Keith Alexander testified that these programs disrupted “at least 10” plots involving “homeland-based threats.” If these 10 or more plots involved large-scale attacks on the U.S., perhaps the threat might be judged worthy of a massive new system of government surveillance but this does not seem to have been the case. No such plots were ever identified.
The USA Freedom Act of 2015, which was supposed to bring transparency to these programs, explicitly exempts surveillance that the government deems necessary to protect national security. If homegrown extremism counts as a national security issue, then the NSA can continue to sidestep the Fourth Amendment without oversight.
“In purely financial terms, these efforts would have to disrupt a 9/11-scale attack every four years to be deemed cost-effective.”
Paradoxically, our zero-tolerance policy toward violent extremism makes Americans feel less safe. If every Muslim with a gun is a threat to national security, then a scattering of events can make us feel besieged. This is the so-called Islamic State’s strategy ― to take advantage of the West’s hypersensitivity to small-scale Islamist extremist attacks.
Some Americans are so unnerved by these sporadic incidents that they are willing to abandon freedom of religion, one of our nation’s core values. In a survey conducted in late 2015, 26 percent of respondents said that Islam should be illegal in the U.S. Another 21 percent said they weren’t sure. The panicky fear that motivates these un-American attitudes does not match America’s self-image as the home of the brave.
Over two centuries, this country has faced worse threats with greater equanimity. When the term “national security” was coined during World War II, it meant Pearl Harbor and submarine attacks on U.S. shipping, with most of Europe under enemy occupation. When the first national security policies were adopted in the 1950s, threats included nuclear warheads, intercontinental ballistic missiles and million-soldier armies. After 9/11, when terrorism became the primary focus of the national security strategy, the threat involved teams of saboteurs, trained overseas to coordinate devastating simultaneous attacks.
“This is ISIS's strategy -- to take advantage of the West’s hypersensitivity to small-scale Islamist attacks.”
Today’s terrorist threat, on the other hand, is paltry by comparison. None of the recent cases have involved large-scale attacks on the U.S. or weapons of mass destruction ― the sort of threats that national security used to refer to.
During his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly exaggerated the scale of Islamist extremism in the United States ― after the Orlando shooting, for example, Trump claimed that there were “thousands of shooters like this, with the same mentality, out there in this country.”
Instead of inflating the threat of extremism, Trump and the rest of us ought to treat it as the small-time criminal enterprise that it is, matching our response to the scale of the problem. Let’s stand strong. Stop giving terrorists the obsessive attention and inflated importance that they crave.