Your Turn: Assessing the terror threat

Fear of terrorism on American soil is now part of our daily lives.  

Surveys show how deeply we feel the threat. In December 2015, Gallup reported that 51 percent of Americans worry they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism; 67 percent believe that terror attacks are imminent in the United States; and we now rank terrorism as the nation’s most important problem, surpassing the economy and government . 

These reactions should come as no surprise.

Talk of terrorism is everywhere. It is a major topic on all news outlets. It is center stage in the presidential debates. It has commandeered the conversations about gun control, immigration, criminal justice, and foreign relations. And we see heavily armed law enforcement officers guard our public gatherings, major intersections, transportation hubs and government offices.

There is good reason for this reaction. The threat is not imaginary. We are under attack. According to the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, from 2000 through 2014, we suffered 3,064 terrorism deaths in America. (The vast majority — 2,997 —  were victims of the 9/11 attacks). 

But this new reality poses a basic question for Americans: Does the threat warrant the current reaction?  

The answer is “no.” Despite the horrors visited upon us, an examination of the numbers shows that the risk of becoming a victim of terrorism is negligible. 

Let’s put the 3,064 terrorism deaths over 14 years into perspective:

l According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2013, here in America, we had 38,851 annual deaths from accidental poisoning, 37,938 from traffic accidents, 30,208 from falls and 16,121 homicides.  

l Put another way, the odds of dying at the hands of terrorists at one in 20 million while the odds of dying from cancer or heart disease are one in seven. 

l In that same period, we had approximately 225,000 annual preventable deaths from heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases and strokes.   

Acts of terrorism are designed to create fear and they have succeeded. And while it is perfectly acceptable to be scared, the kind of fear we now experience is problematic. It causes us to overreact to issues such as immigration and foreign policy and skew our spending priorities so that we divert funds from more pressing problems. 

A case in point: In 2013, the 16 spy agencies in the federal government were allocated $16.6 billion for counterterrorism. In that period of time, there were seven terrorism fatalities in the United States. In that same year, the federal government allocated $4.8 billion for cancer research. In that period of time there were 580,350 cancer deaths.  

The threat of terrorism is real. Its proponents are brutal and sadistic with no limits or boundaries to the horrors they perpetuate. And there is potential for a future attack — traditional, cyber, chemical or nuclear — that could lead to high casualties.

Our response must be firm, comprehensive and, most importantly, effective. But it must also be proportionate to the risk. America needs an open and ongoing discussion about terrorist attacks, their impact, and our response, a conversation driven by fact not by fear.  

— Gene A. Budig is past president of three major state universities, including Kansas University, and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board.