No, Fear of Terrorism is Not the “New Normal”

Ron Fournier penned a fairly influential column yesterday arguing that the attacks in Boston were scarier than 9/11. My colleague Emily Bazelon keyed off the piece for an insightful look at our security standards, but I want to look again at Fournier’s key grafs.

The Boston attack is notable not for the number of deaths, but for its social significance. It’s one thing—a dastardly, evil thing—to strike symbols of economic and military power. It’s another to hit the heart of America. Death at the finish line in Boston makes every place (and everybody) less secure. Malls. Churches. Schools. Ask a mother or father who lived in Washington from 2001-02 what was more terrorizing to your family: The 9/11 attacks or the “Beltway sniper”?
Can we put this in perspective, maybe? Via the Global Terrorism Database, which was plumbed yesterday for a useful piece by Brad Plumer, here’s a chart counting up terrorist attacks inside the United States from 2001 through 2011, the last year for which information is available. Note that it peaks in 2001, and otherwise stabilizes between high single digits and 20 incidents.
Screen shot 2013-04-17 at 10.27.58 AM This, by contrast, is Afghanistan. Screen shot 2013-04-17 at 10.29.22 AM
That’s probably the most extreme example. Here’s a middle point: Israel. Screen shot 2013-04-17 at 10.30.53 AM But what about another Western democracy? What about, say, France? It has about one-fifth the population of the United States, so proportionately it’s got … only a slightly lower incidence of terrorism.
Screen shot 2013-04-17 at 10.32.24 AM So, is any terrorist attack, from whatever source, going to inspire a law enforcement/legislative rethink? Of course, it would, and there’s a pretty dedicated press corps on that—on security laws, on heightened paranoia about communication technology, on whether cities should have trash cans on the streets, and so on. Should every terrorist attack make you fear that we’re going to have to get used to a New Normal of constant terrorism? No. In 2011, you were considerably more likely to be killed by falling furniture than by terrorism. The ricin letter showing up at a senator’s office won’t kill you any more than the anthrax letters of 2001—remember those?—did. You can wake up in a dry bed.