Every weekday, I get in my car and drive into Washington, DC to work. At other times, I eat in restaurants, go the theater and concerts, or visit museums in the city. I live less than a mile from the DC line. So, yes, I find it a bit disconcerting when ISIS releases a video promising a Paris-style attack on the city.
Do you know what I’m going to do about it? Absolutely nothing. And, that’s a good thing. The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. That’s why we call it terrorism. I refuse to be terrorized. I refuse to change my life or spend my days looking over my shoulder. I refuse to stop doing what I did before.
The same should be true for our government and our society. I don’t want to give up our civil liberties in order to purchase a little added safety. Should we be vigilant? Of course. Should we track down and arrest or kill the terrorists? Absolutely. But in an open, liberal democracy, there is no such thing as perfect safety.
I fully expect that, sooner or later, terrorists will strike again in the United States. Americans will die. That is terrible and tragic. But, last year, more than 35,000 Americans died in auto accidents. The reality is that I’m more at risk from driving my car to work than I am from terrorists. If all we cared about was preventing deaths, we would ban cars. That we don’t, shows a proper sense of perspective.
I want a similar sense of proportion when it comes to terrorism. I don’t want the government monitoring my communications, detaining people without trial, closing mosques, or otherwise violating our civil liberties in order to fight terrorism. We can be reasonably safe – not perfectly safe, but reasonably – without making America something less than America.
Similarly, I am disturbed by the hysteria surrounding resettlement of Syrian refugees. Is it possible that a terrorist might slip in amidst the widows and orphans (only about 2 percent of Syrian refugees coming to the US are military-age men without families)? I suppose so, although there are certainly easier ways for a would-be terrorist to get here. But is that very small risk worth denying America’s heritage as a refuge for people fleeing tyranny?
Nor should the fear of terrorism become an excuse for religious bigotry. As I wrote the other day, the attack in Paris was carried out by a cult of radical islamicists. That does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists or evil, or that Islam itself is a threat. As one Facebook meme put it very well: There are 1.2 billion Muslims. If they were all terrorists, we would all be dead by now. In fact, consider that those Kurds we are all cheering for their pro-Americanism – and for retaking ISIS-claimed territory in Iraq and Syria – are Sunni Muslims. And, lest you say that moderate Muslims are not condemning these attacks – yes they are:
ISIS is not going to conquer the United States. It is dangerous, indeed barbarous, but it is not an existential threat. But it can make us change our way of like. It can make us different than the country that I love. If they do, they will have won.