In this climate, we run the risk of bouncing from a longtime underreaction to a sudden overreaction to white-nationalist terrorists. Geraldo Rivera and Sean Hannity want the government to place “active-shooter trained, heavily armed security personnel every place innocents are gathered,” especially on “every floor of every school.” Talk about terrorizing children.
Perspective is important, especially when hysteria is high. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson got ratioed on Twitter and ultimately apologized for pointing out after the El Paso attack that the number of terrorism-related fatalities is still orders of magnitude lower than the number of fatalities from car accidents, the flu, suicide, and medical errors. The poor timing of the tweet made it foolish on an emotional level. But it was nonetheless factually correct. The political scientist John Mueller has published numerous studies showing that American deaths from terrorism pale in comparison to deaths from countless other tragedies and that our massive counterterrorism investment has been excessive relative to the actual threat.
So what is the optimal response to terrorism? Regardless of the type of terrorist threat, domestic or international, counterterrorism must always strive to achieve two cross-cutting goals. The first is to neutralize existing terrorists. And the second is to do it in way that doesn’t generate new ones in the process. Whereas underreaction fails at the former, overreaction tends to fail at the latter. The key to achieving this tricky balance is to aggressively go after only legitimate terrorists, lest we inadvertently spawn future ones.