The State of the Union's Anxiety

On the night of September 11, 2001, I got a phone call from a relative who’d seen IRA bombings in London, which she recounted in talking to me about what had happened in New York and Washington earlier that day. Not that these were comparable, she said, but terrorism was an unfortunate reality and that people in places likely to be targeted should be watchful, not scared. I agreed in principle but, with smoke hanging over my neighborhood and rumors still rampant, fear was tough to put aside.

President Obama’s response to Americans’ worry over terrorism—which by some reports is higher now than it has been since the weeks following 9/11—is portrayed on the right as singularly out of touch and insensitive, and even among some supporters as something less than adequate. The issue is getting specific attention in the run-up to his State of the Union address tonight (the last SOTU of his presidency), with some wondering whether he will use the occasion to challenge notions of his perceived indifference to anxieties and concerns over terrorism. But if he does, how should he do it?

The New York Times today explains the difficulty a president faces in appealing to reason, noting what Obama most likely won’t say: that “Americans are more likely to die in a car crash, drown in a bathtub or be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist” and that the “Islamic State does not pose an existential threat to the United States.” And there is no way he could say that “a certain number of relatively low-level terrorist attacks may be inevitable” and that Americans may have to adapt to it, as Israelis have, or as my relative said that night in 2001, Londoners had.

It would be good, though, if the president was able to say these things, and more.

Such as: The threat of terrorism in the United States and the West has proved to be far more limited than has persistently been feared; that it is unwise and counterproductive to treat a threatening event not as an aberration but a harbinger of worse to come; that the annual risk of dying in a terrorist attack in the United States between 1970 and 2007 was one in 3.5 million; that the ceaseless, alarmist pursuit of “threats” is an “expensive, exhausting, bewildering, chaotic, and paranoia-inducing process … an exercise in dueling delusions: a Muslim hothead has delusions about changing the world by blowing something up, and the authorities have delusions that he might actually be able to overcome his patent inadequacies to do so.” All of these are the level-headed contentions of the Cato Institute’s John Mueller, who specializes in challenging exaggerations of the terrorist threat. But he understands that Obama won’t go there, telling the Times that the president can’t emphasize rationality for fear it will “blow up in his face… He’s tried to say [terrorism] is not an existential threat, which is so banal it’s a no-brainer, and he can’t even get that to go down.”  

Does a leader need to sow fear to come across as fearless? Is the heightening of anxieties necessary to claiming you can reduce them? Republican candidates for president seem to think so. Writing in December of the fifth GOP debate, Frank Rich characterized it as “almost solely focused on fear, and the main way the candidates tried to distinguish themselves from each other could be found in their race to determine who could best exploit and ramp up the audience’s worst nightmares of imminent Armageddon.” This is not the same thing as coming across as tough or steely or committed or courageous, or, for that matter, rational. On the other hand, how does a leader acknowledge and assuage fears without further stoking them—or, without minimizing or trivializing them? Should the president, as his own one-time adviser on homeland security suggests in the Times, simply accept that Americans are irrational about terrorism and not try to dissuade them of it? Is an FDR-like “Four Freedoms” address needed, as some recommend, to confront this and other matters?  

Recently Adam Gopnik wrote on how societies collectively remember some things but not others. Among the forgotten in the U.S. is how regular a feature of life anarchist terrorism once was:

In a time when terrorism is on everyone’s lips and the prime subject of popular, if hyperbolic, worry, you would think that its history would be available: in fact, almost no one now recalls, without an effort, that terrorists a century ago managed to assassinate an American President, a French President, the Czar of all the Russians, and many a secondary figure along the way. What would become of us, and our civil liberties, if the same score were run up now? As Bill James points out in his good recent history, “Popular Crime,” the violence of that period has gotten tucked away in the vaults. This is true even though the lessons—both that terrorism is a general and probably permanent apparition of modernity, and that it tends to get defeated not by military acts but by police work and its own exhaustion—would be worth relearning.

When a terrorist strikes a holiday party at a public health services building in a place like San Bernardino, or a concert at a nightclub in Paris, it’s hard to imagine terrorism succumbing to its own exhaustion, or to keep in mind that such attacks remain rare. People ask me if I worry about riding the New York City subway every day; I joke that I was more worried in the 1980s. But I do take note of who boards and who leaves, and just how far I am from the doors. Also, because it seems to do some good, I try to keep the statistics in mind, as well as the fact that many others have learned to live this way too, in different places and in different times. 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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