Commentary Magazine


Terrorism and Complacence

There is a long-standing isolationist trope which holds that because relatively few Americans die every year in acts of terrorism–at least if you exclude our troops in Afghanistan or, before that, in Iraq–then it follows we are devoting too much effort to the war on terrorism. (For an example, see this online Atlantic article, this Jewish Daily Forward article, which clams you’re more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist, or just about any foreign policy publication from the Cato Institute.)

What’s wrong with this argument? Leave aside the fact that the number of people killed has never been the sole or even the main criterion of how the U.S. or other nations respond to attacks on their soil–otherwise it would be hard to see why we declared war on Germany and Japan in 1941, thereby becoming embroiled in a conflict many times more costly than the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in response to an attack which killed fewer Americans than did 9/11.

The real problem with the isolationist argument is that just because terrorists have killed relatively few Americans so far–if one discounts those 3,000 dead on 9/11 and lesser casualty tolls from Beirut in 1983 to Boston in 2013–does not mean that they will never kill more in the future. And even without killing a lot of people directly, terrorists can nevertheless severely impact our cherished way of life.

I was reminded of that reading this news article about a drill to be held in November, known as GridEx II, in which electric power companies will work with government agencies to simulate their response to a massive blackout that could be caused by terrorists and/or hackers, either working for a non-state group such as al-Qaeda or a foreign government such as China’s.

The article notes: “The electric grid, as government and private experts describe it, is the glass jaw of American industry. If an adversary lands a knockout blow, they fear, it could black out vast areas of the continent for weeks; interrupt supplies of water, gasoline, diesel fuel and fresh food; shut down communications; and create disruptions of a scale that was only hinted at by Hurricane Sandy and the attacks of Sept. 11.”

Such a scenario seems improbable today–but then so did the 9/11 attacks before they occurred. If history teaches anything, it is that we would be making a grave mistake if we discounted a looming danger simply because it had not yet come to pass.