PORTLAND--Do Americans worry about terrorism? Seventy-nine percent of Americans told the most recent CNN survey of national concerns that they did. They considered the fight against terrorists "very important"--more so than Iraq, the economy, immigration or gas prices. But it isn't true.
Something interesting is revealed when you turn the same poll into an open-ended question. Unlike CNN, which asks people to react to a laundry list of issues, a poll by CBS News simply asks them: "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" When Americans aren't prompted, terrorism barely registers among their concerns. Worries about the Iraq war rank first, at 28 percent, followed by the economy and the difficulty of finding a job (15 percent), and illegal immigration (12 percent). Terrorism ranks a paltry fifth, with just 5 percent More people fret over paying too much for gas (6 percent) than the remote possibility of getting blown up by al-Qaeda.
Humans are susceptible to suggestion. Ask them if they're afraid of being bitten by a pit bull and they'll probably say yes, come to think of it, hell yes--especially after watching a barrage of hysterical news stories about a gruesome pit bull attack. But, except when prompted by pollsters and media hysteria, few people wallow in cynophobia. Only a tiny fraction of the population would list pit bulls among their top concerns. The same is true about terrorism. Few Americans worry about it in their daily lives. Which makes sense, since the odds of falling victim to a terrorist attack, or suffering the loss of a loved one, are slim to none.
Of course, you wouldn't know from the news that Americans don't worry much about terrorism. Four years after 9/11, there's little relationship between real life and our all-terror-all-the-time news and politics. Smoke has cleared, grief has faded, and shock has yielded to dispassionate realism: Though horrible and devastating, 9/11 wasn't the cataclysmic event we've been led to believe.
Three thousand Americans were killed on 9/11. Studies indicate that the average person knows 250 people, so roughly 750,000 Americans knew someone who died. That means more than 99.8 percent didn't. Compared to the overall size of the economy, the fiscal impact wasn't that big a deal. The short- and intermediate-term cost of 9/11, borne disproportionately by New York City, has been estimated at between $25 and $30 billion--the same as the cost of occupying Iraq for five months. True, the collapse of the World Trade Center, which released clouds of asbestos that will kill thousands of New Yorkers for years to come, was an epic environmental disaster--but no one cares about that. The overwhelming majority of Americans were materially unaffected by 9/11. While even Americans who don't live in New York or Washington suffered a diminished sense of psychic invulnerability, the passage of several years without another attack--getting away with two of our most brazenly unjustifiable military adventures in history without retribution--has restored most of our feckless fearlessness.
Peter Beinart, an editor at the ideologically schizophrenic New Republic, has written a book called The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. Reviewers may agree or disagree with Beinart's premise as laid out in the subtitle, but few are likely to question his underlying premise, which is universally accepted by the left, right and everyone in between: that the "war on terror" is and ought to be a high (perhaps our highest) national priority. Writing that "the United States again faces a totalitarian foe," Beinart equates America's post-9/11 fight against "Islamo-fascists" with the war against the Axis during World War II. If the Islamists represent that much of a threat to our safety and political sovereignty, it follows that social programs, civil liberties and our privacy might have to be abridged in order to defeat them. But it's a ludicrous comparison.
Just as we must make distinctions between threats that are long-term (Saddam's Iraq, Iran) and those that are short-term (North Korea, Pakistan), a nation should know how to separate its "enemies" from its "competitors." An enemy power wants to invade your country, subjugate its citizens and steal its wealth. The last time this happened in earnest was 1812, when Great Britain tried to take back its former colonies. Even during World War II, neither Nazi Germany nor Japan had territorial designs on the United States aside from a few, relatively inconsequential, island territories in the Pacific. From this perspective, America has no "enemies." Neither al-Qaeda, nor any other known terrorist organization, nor any nation-state, wants to invade the United States and rule its people, nor could it do so if it so desired.
America has competitors, not enemies. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union competed with the U.S. in Third World proxy wars. As I will discuss in my forthcoming book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, Russia and China are vying for influence and control over the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and other countries in the oil-rich Caspian Sea basin. Non-state actors such as al-Qaeda want to transform moderate and secular Muslim states to rule under a Wahhabi-style caliphate. These are threats to American influence abroad, not to America itself.
It's easy to forget in the current media environment, but all this competition is taking place overseas. No one--neither North Korea, nor Iran, nor al-Qaeda, nor China--has lifted a finger to alter American domestic politics, culture or religion. They haven't tried to influence any nation in our hemisphere. The conclusion is simple, obvious but nevertheless counterintuitive: as Americans tell pollsters when they're asked the right way, there isn't much at stake in the war on terror.
Even if Islamist fundamentalism were to sweep the Muslim world (which is its objective), it wouldn't matter much to most Americans. After all, Saudi Arabia still manages to sell us plenty of oil while beheading adulteresses. The same would likely be true of Iraq, now a battleground between the U.S. and Islamists. A Talibanized Iraq would continue to sell oil to its largest consumer.
Americans worry about Iraq, not because of the nationalist insurgency conflated with "terrorism" in the press, but because it's too expensive: too many dead and crippled soldiers, too damaging to our international reputation, too hard of a hit on the treasury. The longer the Iraq war grinds on, the higher their 2009 taxes will be.
Beinart was wrong about Iraq in 2003; he supported a preemptive strike just in case Saddam had WMDs. He's wrong again now. Contrary to the counsel proffered by his DLC-influenced militant moderates, Democrats would be smarter to recognize the war on terror as a distraction from the real issues--such as jobs, inflation and healthcare--that most Americans worry about. Let the GOP have the terrorism "issue." It reinforces how out of touch the Republicans are with the everyday concerns of the American people.