What Terrorism Experts Can Learn From Public Health Experts

National security professionals have a duty to use their influence to fight hyperbole.

Staff at the Prince of Wales hospital in Hong Kong wear face masks to protect themselves from SARS on March 14, 2003.
Staff at the Prince of Wales hospital in Hong Kong wear face masks to protect themselves from SARS on March 14, 2003. Christian Keenan/Getty Images

In the early 2000s, two events sowed fear in the United States and around the world: the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the SARS outbreak of 2002 and 2003. In the years that followed, the professional communities responsible for responding to these threats, and informing the public about them, have followed two very different paths.

In the fight against deadly diseases, public health experts have sought to balance the need for preparedness with their duty to avoid hyperbole, which can lead to panic. National security experts should adopt this same ethos.

SARS started in China and spread around the world, leaving hundreds of people dead. The global public health community mobilized immediately to contain the epidemic—and to manage perceptions of it. “SARS is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with seriously. Yet our actions must be based on facts and experience, not on fears,” Richard Schabas, the chief of staff at York Central Hospital in Richmond Hill, Canada, wrote in an article for the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2003. “The response should not be worse than the disease.”

“We will continue to see new SARS cases, usually at relatively low levels but with occasional flare-ups,” he continued. “In other words, we should plan on getting used to living with SARS.”

As infections spread, polls showed that SARS was a top fear among Americans, surpassing even terrorism in apparent level of concern. In 2003, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave regular press briefings aimed to communicate a “common sense and prudent recommendations from a public health perspective without causing unnecessary fear and panic or overreaction in the public.” Public health specialists debated how “to reconcile the tension between the public’s health and individual rights to privacy, liberty, and freedom of movement.”

During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, this pattern repeated: The director of the CDC reassured Americans the virus was “not going to be a huge risk in the U.S.” Public health experts debated how “to ensure that sound science drives public health decisions and that civil liberties and individual privacy are not eroded.” At moments like these, public health professionals are responsible for addressing low-odds, high-impact threats to public safety—just the sorts of threats that terrorism experts face. But public health experts at the highest levels of the profession have long tried to balance preparedness and panic and routinely reflect on whether that balance has been achieved.

Terrorism experts, by contrast, have not by and large adhered to similar approach. In the wake of 9/11, many national security professionals issued assessments claiming that the world had entered a new era of repeated mass casualty attacks. Fears of such attacks—especially those carried out by Islamist revolutionaries—rose dramatically. Many of those fears were not borne out, and the expert community made comparatively little effort to mitigate public anxiety and took little professional responsibility for examining the failures of their predictions.

In 2003, at the same time as the SARS crisis, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that the bureau strongly suspected the presence in the United States of several hundred extremists linked to al Qaeda. As it turned out, by the Justice Department’s own accounts, fewer than a dozen people in the United States were convicted in subsequent years for links with al Qaeda (though such links may not have been made public in an unknown number of additional cases). Terrorism makes up a very small portion of the violence in the United States: approximately one-tenth of 1 percent of the country’s 280,000 murders since 2001. Every incident of terrorism is a tragedy. It is fortunate that such tragedies have been relatively rare. Terrorist attacks by their very nature leave deeper scars on society than other forms of violence. But that doesn’t make them likelier. The U.S. government has not revealed any conspiracies on the scale of the 9/11 plot, despite assigning thousands of officials to counterterrorism investigations.

Yet Mueller never withdrew his threat assessment. In 2006, he turned to the idea of an evolving terrorist threat driven by “smaller, more loosely-defined individuals and cells” that “may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al Qaeda, if not more so.” He repeated this formulation many times through the end of his tenure at the FBI, and the doctrine of evolving threats was taken up through the national security profession, along with the implication that current threats were just as dire as that of 9/11.

In 2011, after years without significant terrorist plots in the United States, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano warned: “The terrorist threat to the homeland is, in many ways, at its most heightened state since 9/11.” Jeh Johnson, her successor, testified in 2016 that the Islamic State’s online recruitment constituted “a new phase in the global terrorist threat, requiring a whole new type of response.” In 2017, after the Islamic State had lost most of its territory and the pace of terrorism had slowed, Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of homeland security, testified: “Today, the magnitude of the threat we face from terrorism is equal to, and in many ways exceeds, the 9/11 period.”

These officials viewed preparedness as their primary mission. But this sole focus missed other priorities that are standard in the field of public health, including a commitment to empirical evidence—responses to a threat must be proportional to the evidence of the threat, rather than fear and speculation, and these responses must constantly be reviewed and recalibrated as new evidence emerges.

In recent years, the number of terrorism plots and attacks—especially those carried out by Islamist radicals—has declined dramatically, both in the United States and globally, according to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. The U.S. State Department has also reduced its estimate of the size of foreign terrorist organizations. Yet terrorism professionals have not updated their policy recommendations. Instead, the notion of evolving threats has continued to justify the expansion of counterterrorism policies and security agencies, regardless of the actual scale of terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security budget, excluding disaster relief, doubled between fiscal year 2006 and fiscal year 2018. Exaggerated fear of terrorism has played a role in bigotry toward Muslims.

Americans’ fear of terrorism has increased in recent years, even as the trauma of 9/11 receded and the odds of victimization declined to miniscule levels. In 2017, 42 percent of Gallup survey respondents said they were worried that someone in their family would become a victim of terrorism. Preparedness has begun to look like panic.

Exaggerated fear of terrorism has played a role in bigotry toward Muslims, despite repeated statements by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations differentiating between Muslim extremists and Muslim communities at large. Over the past decade, Americans’ attitudes toward Muslims have become considerably more negative, according to surveys asking versions of the question, “Is your overall opinion of Muslims favorable or unfavorable?” Suspicion that Muslim Americans pose a threat to the Constitution ceased to be a fringe position in U.S. politics, growing to the point that 26 percent of respondents in one survey said Islam should be illegal in the United States. Another 21 percent said they were not sure.

During the 2016 presidential race, Donald Trump stoked these fears, falsely claiming that there were thousands of shooters like Omar Mateen, the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooter, at large in the United States. There have been no Muslim mass shooters in the subsequent three years, while several far-right extremists have carried out shootings in 2019 alone—most recently at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where an anti-immigrant extremist shot 46 shoppers, killing 22. On the campaign trail, Trump’s major policy speech on terrorism included the false claim that the Obama administration was ignoring “support networks for radical Islam in this country.” The Trump administration has not identified any such support networks. The suspension of visas to citizens from several Muslim-majority countries was premised on the false suggestion that visitors from these countries posed a significant threat to the United States. Extremists from “visa ban” countries accounted for zero fatalities in the preceding two decades. A wall along the U.S.-Mexico border was proposed on the false grounds that terrorists, in Trump’s words, “are pouring into our country.” There have been no terrorist attacks by migrants who crossed the border illegally. Trump falsely claimed that a member of Congress, Rep. Ilhan Omar, supports terrorism. She doesn’t.

The political success of these falsehoods among segments of the American population in part reflects distorted public understandings of terrorism and the threat it poses, which national security experts have not done enough to counteract. A handful of scholars, such as the political scientist John Mueller at Ohio State University, have warned for years that national security fears are overblown. But few prominent experts have publicly examined their own role, however unintended, in preparing the ground for fear, bigotry, and hyperbole.

A rare retrospective by two former counterterrorism officials, Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd, marveled at how wrong their past threat assessments had been: “No one in the dizzying days after 9/11 would have believed that annual terrorism-related casualties [in the United States] leading into 2017 would number only in the dozens; experts might have predicted hundreds, even thousands.” Liepman and Mudd worried that “the United States is obsessed with terrorism, to an unhealthy and illogical degree,” but did not address the ways in which their own threat assessments may have contributed to this obsession.

Dan Coats, Trump’s former director of national intelligence, this year sought to put terrorist threats in perspective, releasing an assessment arguing that “the frequency of attacks most likely will be very low compared to most other forms of criminal violence in the US.” He added a caveat: That would only remain the case “as long as [counterterrorism] and law enforcement efforts remain constant.” Still, it was encouraging to hear a national security official acknowledge that terrorism pales in comparison to other threats to public safety. Coats has since been removed from office, but his statement offers a model for national security professionals. Like the leadership of the CDC during the SARS and Ebola crises, responsible officials need to weigh the risks posed by inattention against the risks posed by overattention.

An evenhanded approach to national security, drawing professional and ethical lessons from the field of public health, would include conferences and research exploring why terrorism never lived up to the threat assessments issued after 9/11 and how to avoid overreactions in the future. It would ensure that national security publications, testimony, and public statements avoid hyperbole and correct the public record when policymakers exaggerate. It would propose policies and resource allocations that are calibrated to the scale of the threat, rising when threats rise and shrinking when threats shrink, even if that means cutting the budgets of the experts’ own organizations.

There will be more terrorist attacks. Terrorism cannot be eradicated completely, just as other forms of violence cannot be eradicated completely. After each tragedy, national security experts have a duty to use their television interviews, social media accounts, and op-eds—whatever influence they may have—to help rebuild the public resilience that has been damaged by the doctrine of evolving threats.

Charles Kurzman is a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of The Missing Martyrs: Why Are There So Few Muslim Terrorists? Twitter: @CharlesKurzman

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