In the wake of the atrocities in the French city of Nice and the quickening pace of terrorist attacks around the world, we are in jeopardy of growing callous about the strategic impact of terrorism. How we talk about the threat affects our reaction.
President Obama has declared that the Islamic State does not present an “existential threat” to the United States. This statement reflects an attempt to recalibrate the risk and our response to it — terrorists are not 10-foot giants, Americans should not be panicked into knee-jerk reactions, and resilience is a strategic buffer against terrorism. But this formulation has a dangerous effect. Framing the terrorist threat from the Islamic State and others solely in “existential” terms risks dulling the nation’s sense of urgency in confronting this mounting danger.
Repeated, targeted terrorism has strategic impact. Though the Islamic State may not be able to mount a 9/11-style attack, it has perpetrated terrorism from Brussels to Baghdad and inspired it in Orlando and San Bernardino, Calif. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have called on followers to attack with whatever means possible in Western countries, including driving into pedestrians. Aside from body counts, psychological impact and economic consequences, these attacks exacerbate social cleavages and political instability. They stoke fears of immigration at the height of a global refugee crisis and animate sectarian and reactionary forces.