Monday, January 30, 2017

Gaslighting on Terrorism and Immigration

This weekend has seen a mass of confusion, protest, anger, and dismay at a hastily-constructed executive order that brought an immediate halt to certain kinds of immigration and travel, and an indefinite halt to others (specifically, refugees from Syria). People marched, court orders were issued (and apparently ignored), statements were made, contradicted, and clarified. Things are still far from certain as of the start of the week.

Lost in the shuffle of all of these important issues is an underlying reality: we as a nation have been effectively "gaslighted" on terrorism and immigration. The Trump forces have told the lie that we are unsafe and vulnerable to attack by terrorists traveling from overseas so often that we all now take it for granted - even Democratic Senators otherwise opposed to the executive order.

As a security studies scholar, let me put this in clear terms: there is not a shred of evidence that the United States is any more vulnerable to terrorist attacks from abroad than it ever has been, and plenty to suggest that we are safer than at any point in our history. There is also no way of defending the assertion that Islamic terrorism represents an existential threat to the United States, or that it even ought to be on the list of top US national security priorities. We are afraid of terrorism only because we've been told we should be.

The easiest way to see the truth, of course, is to look at the statistics. Violence of any kind - never mind terrorist violence - doesn't even make the top 15 list of causes of death in the US, and has been in long-term secular decline (as have death rates in general). Any given American's odds of being killed or injured by a terrorist are almost infinitesimally small, and the odds of a terrorist attack of any kind happening on US soil on any given day - or even in any given month - are likewise extremely small. The list of things you are more likely to encounter than a terrorist is vast.

The few high-profile cases we've had in recent years (San Bernadino and, if you really want to stretch, Orlando) were committed by US citizens. The only recent case that might conceivably have been stopped by the rules recently put in place was a knife-wielding Somali at Ohio State, which while regrettable and tragic didn't lead to any loss of life (other than the attacker's) and which represented only the tiniest of dangers even to the people of Columbus, OH. Dylann Roof did more damage in South Carolina that this student did in Columbus.

The fact is that, of things that threaten Americans' lives and way of life, terrorism just doesn't make the list. It is, in reality, just not that important. Are we 100% free of terrorist risk? Of course not - and we never will be. There is no set of rules, no border restrictions, no "extreme vetting" procedures that will ever eliminate that risk. And at this point, the risk is so low that any efforts to improve procedures - however well-considered and well-implemented - will only lower the risk level by an almost immeasurably small amount. When you're that close to zero, it's hard to get closer.

Why, then, are so many Americans concerned about terrorism? Why are even Senate Democrats unwilling to question the underlying logic of Trump's executive order, which amounts to "desperate times call for desperate measures"? Because we have all been gaslit on this. The lie has been repeated so many times that it has become the truth.

This is not a problem that goes away with one administration, however disliked or incompetent. This is now baked into the system, the result of 15 years of steady drumbeats that long predate Trump and his people. No politician, Democrat or Republican, will challenge the conventional wisdom, and a great many of them will find it useful as cover to do what they want to do, whether it be restricting economic activity or discriminating against certain groups or simply getting reelected on the basis of blind fear. The "War on Terror" is, indeed, the never-ending war, because we have enshrined it on a pedestal in our heads.

I wish I could be less bleak about this, but I don't see a way forward. We have largely lost the capacity for hope in our politics, especially as concerns "national security" issues. 25 years ago we dreamed of a world in which we felt secure. Since then we have allowed our "leaders" to make sure that we will never feel secure again, whatever the real world is doing. As usual, Walt Kelly said it best: we have met the enemy, and He is Us.

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