Happy 4th. Another holiday. Another government alert about the possibility of a terror attack by Islamic extremists.
Should you care?
Such warnings are a fact of life in the first years of the 21st century, and increasingly they seem to elicit little more than a collective shrug. This recent tally confirms what many people already suspected: Since the Sept. 11 attacks nearly 14 years ago, almost twice as many people have been killed in the U.S. by anti-government, white supremacist or other domestic attackers than by Muslim militants. We’ve just lived through the sorry example of Charleston.
In any case, the numbers are small. If you spend a moment with this spreadsheet compiled by RedEye Chicago, you’ll see that the tally of people who died since 2002 in terror attacks inspired by events in the Middle East – 26 — roughly equals the number of black men who were shot to death in Chicago last month.
So, is this latest warning from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI just an exercise in fear-mongering? Or bureaucratic butt-covering?
Not necessarily. The numbers are an important part of our recent history, but they don’t tell the full story. As much as most of us would like all lives to matter equally in our country, they don’t. Among other things, we don’t treat attacks by terrorists (particularly the Middle East variety) like other violence, and we don’t treat terrorism deaths like other deaths.
For all of the electronic snooping the government does, most of us can agree that intelligence gathering and analysis is an inherently slippery business. It’s difficult for us to judge how serious any threat is, because we don’t have access to the same information.
But as this Christian Science Monitor piece notes, there are reasons some experts are taking this one seriously.
A spokesman for the Islamic State has urged attacks during Ramadan, and just last week, more than 60 people died in Tunisia, Kuwait and France. Those killed in Tunisia were primarily foreign tourists, mostly British.
France in particular has been on alert, even before the attack in January on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. But there is simply too much activity and too many people to keep tabs on them all. If another Sept. 11 attack, in all its complexity, seems unlikely, individuals or small groups can still cause a lot of mayhem.
Islamic State extremists, who burst onto the scene a year ago in Syria and Iraq, have recently suffered some setbacks – particularly at the hands of Kurdish forces. This analysis published by Al Jazeera provides a feel for the complexity of that battle. And another perhaps-not-quite-so-extreme Syrian rebel group gave the Islamic State a taste of its own medicine this week, releasing a video of 18 IS fighters being executed.
But as the attacks last week in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe show, the Islamic State seems increasingly interested in inspiring violence beyond Syria and Iraq. Russia’s Caucasus region might also be a target.
The Internet has revolutionized recruitment of individuals – in Minnesota, the rest of the U.S., Europe and throughout the world. In response, European countries are forming a special police unit to take down social media sites used by Islamic State figures.
But experience and logic both suggest that the occasional attacker still will slip through. So even if nothing happens to mar this holiday (and odds are that nothing will happen), it only makes sense to assume that there will be more successful terror attacks in the Middle East, in Europe — and in the United States.
That’s important because those who inspire the attacks and those who carry them out (often dying in the process) count on the act having an impact disproportionate to the casualty toll. Plus, the target – like a Fourth of July celebration — is crucial.
The toll in the Sept. 11 attacks was horrific in and of itself, but the impact was magnified by the nature of the targets. Then, ask yourself whether the deaths of four people in Boston two years ago in April would’ve received all the attention they did if they hadn’t been victims of terrorism, and the target hadn’t been the Boston Marathon.
What to do? Several things, perhaps.
• Make sure you prevent the big one. You can be sure government agencies are trying to do just that. If nothing else, there is far too much to lose politically and bureaucratically for them to let their guard down.
• Don’t be surprised when you hear of the next attack in the U.S. It almost certainly will happen. It’s a sign of the times. Chances are it won’t change the U.S. or its policies. Instead, countries can hurt themselves by over-reacting – like attacking Iraq because of a plot hatched in Afghanistan.
• Keep the toll in perspective. Innocent people probably will die, which is horrible. But it’s also horrible when innocent people die on the streets of Chicago, in a Charleston church – or Baghdad or Damascus. If we did value all these lives equally, it might help blunt the impact of terrorism. It could also make the United States a better place.