Hillary Clinton wants you calm about terrorism. Donald Trump wants you terrorized.
The terrorist attacks that occurred last weekend in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota illustrate two critical yet contradictory facts. First, we are incredibly vulnerable to terrorism. And second, we have been incredibly safe from terrorism. Donald Trump would like you to keep the first one in mind, while Hillary Clinton would remind you not to forget the second.
Every time there's some kind of an attack like these recent ones, whether anyone is killed or not (thankfully, this time no one was), it's natural for people to become more fearful. They look around when they're on the subway or at a sporting event or in a restaurant or just walking down the street and say, "It would be so easy for a terrorist to kill a huge number of people here right now." And they're right.
Unless you want to kill thousands of people at a time, acts of terrorism don't require "masterminds," evil geniuses who'll devise intricate plans with multiple moving parts that all have to come together perfectly for the plan to work. All that's necessary is to get yourself a semi-automatic rifle — they aren't that difficult to obtain here in the United States, you might have noticed — or look around online for plans to build a simple explosive device, take your instrument of death to anyplace where large numbers of people can be found, and you can kill dozens or even hundreds. Until we reach a time when we all interact with each other only in virtual space while our atrophied meatsacks are safely tucked away at home in sensory deprivation tanks, people are going to congregate together. And when they do, they'll be vulnerable.
But most of us don't spend too much time dwelling on that vulnerability. We go about our lives, taking some sensible precautions but understanding that even if stopping all terrorism is impossible, the risk is pretty small.
And it's even smaller than most people realize. Since September 11, 2001, a total of 94 Americans have been killed here at home by jihadi terrorists, according to researchers at the New America Foundation who track these incidents. That's a little over six deaths per year. Five times as many Americans die in a typical year from getting struck by lightning. And that's not to mention that 5,000 times as many die every year from gun violence.
When you're running for president to essentially continue the policies of the current administration, that's what you want people to keep in mind — even if you can't say it directly for fear that you'll be accused of not taking the threat seriously. So instead, you find a different way to tell people not to lose their minds, by appealing to their sense of self-efficacy. "Let us be vigilant, but not afraid," said Hillary Clinton when she spoke about last weekend's incidents. "We choose resolve, not fear. We will not turn on each other or undermine our values. We'll stand together because we are stronger together in the face of this threat and every other challenge."
Key to Clinton's argument is the idea that when it comes to terrorism, we each have a choice to make about how we'll react to it, and that choice will help determine whether it's ultimately successful or not. After all, the goal of terrorism is to terrorize, to leverage small violent events into much larger reactions of fear and chaos that can undermine the society the terrorist wants to oppose. If no one becomes terrorized, the terrorism has failed.
Clinton also acknowledges — again, only implicitly — that terrorism can't be banished forever, because it's a technique that will always be available to disgruntled, violent people, whatever the political idea in which they clothe their rage. But this too is something that politicians won't speak aloud. In 2004, John Kerry suggested that our goal should be to reduce terrorism to the point where it's a "nuisance" like organized crime or illegal gambling, so "fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life." George W. Bush, who after September 11 had promised that his administration would "rid the world of the evil-doers," promptly made an ad skewering Kerry for his willingness to admit that terrorism might not be banished for all eternity.
To Donald Trump, on the other hand, the latest terrorist attack isn't an opportunity to buck up Americans' spirits and tell them to be strong, it's an excuse to tell them to be afraid. He predicts more terrorist attacks, and says that refugees are not people fleeing terrible situations but a "Trojan horse" coming to unleash death and destruction upon us. "This is cancer from within," he said on Monday. "They stay together. They're plotting."
To Trump, the world contains a finite number of terrorists, and if we can just kill them or keep them out of the country, then we'll be safe. In response to the identification of Ahmad Rahami, the suspect in the New York and New Jersey incidents, Trump tweeted:
Once again someone we were told is ok turns out to be a terrorist who wants to destroy our country & its people- how did he get thru system?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 19, 2016
The answer is that Rahami is a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to the United States as a child. He wasn't a terrorist when his family emigrated to America. Some combination of factors turned him into one, but he wouldn't have been identified by Trump's "extreme vetting" of immigrants.
But what Trump never says is how ordinary Americans ought to respond when confronted with the possibility of terrorism — other than voting for him. In the picture he paints, he is all-powerful, and the moment he takes office, problems like crime and terrorism will vanish. The rest of us don't have anything to do with it.
Trump is right about one thing: There will be more terrorist attacks. But as more than a few people noticed, New Yorkers themselves were almost blasé about the whole thing, worrying more about how ISIS might affect their morning commute than whether the terrorists are going to kill us all.
Who knows, maybe there's a lesson there.