Many Americans today fear the threat posed by radical Islamist movements. Nearly three quarters of Americans are concerned about terrorism, according to the Pew Research Center.
However, this fear felt by a large majority of the population could be a little overblown.
The Strategic Value of Fear
In a little-known congressional hearing earlier this year, Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation cast doubt on the threat posed by these groups to the nation.
“There is no agreement that terrorism represents an existential threat to the nation” he said. He even cast doubt on the idea that “terrorism poses a greater threat than the other security challenges faced by the United States.”
There is a clear dichotomy between what Americans at large view as a threat to the nation compared to what is an actual threat. This is big–and very important. A 2016 story from the Atlantic revealed that Americans today “are more worried about terrorism than they were after 9/11.”
Lawrence Freedman notes in “Strategy—A History,” that “targeting the enemy’s domestic political base” is an approach weaker opponents take when facing a far stronger foe.
The increasing unpopularity of exhaustive and costly military campaigns can become a source of power. Terror groups use this public frustration to compel governments to halt their military efforts. This is done by fomenting terror in the minds of civilians through horrific attacks. The average citizen is supposed to think something like “if these wars are costing so much and doing so little, then why should we continue them?”
The Real Strategic Effects
A majority of Americans are fearful of the terrorist threat, with those between the ages of 15-21 polling at 82 percent. This proves that part of the strategy of the terrorist groups is actually working.
However, if these terrorist organisations hoped they could scare the American population into pressuring their government to reduce its military operations against them, their machinations have backfired. Current polls show that most Americans think their government’s military response to terrorism isn’t “aggressive” enough, and want more action.
However, data reflecting the kaleidoscopic nature of the American population at large shows that this call for aggression has some caveats. Americans are also hesitant to rally behind full-scale military campaigns, especially in the Middle East and South Asia.
This highlights the contradictory nature of the American population at large. They are fearful of terrorism, but are hesitant to support foreign operations that would weaken and destroy terrorist groups. Further, the humanitarian challenges created by these groups compel Americans to render aid.
How Public Policy Can Respond
Reducing unnecessary paranoia about terrorism, but not all of it, is only one area that needs attention. This can be addressed directly through robust political and military commitments to eradicating these groups.
The main concern, as part of bigger trends is the increasing degree of wariness among a substantial sector of the population. This wariness is mostly fueled by issues such as stagnant economic growth, perceived inequality, and a contentious political climate.
One starting point is by creating tolerable economic, social, infrastructural, and security conditions. Neglecting to contain the public’s ire on these issues, at least to healthy levels, risks undermining social stability through uncontrollable civil unrest. This is demonstrated by the spikes in activity from radical groups outside the boundaries of normal political activities.
We cannot manage our oversized fear of terrorism from abroad, it seems, without first cleaning up affairs here at home.