In the San Francisco Chronicle
Written by Leland Faust
Americans don’t know how to assess risk, especially when it comes to radical Islamist terrorism at home. We should be outraged by the December mass shootings in San Bernardino, but what is really fear-worthy? Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fewer than 50 people have died in the United States at the hands of jihadists. It is thus unlikely that you or I will end up splattered on a sidewalk, compliments of a suicide bomber.
What’s really scary is that we are not scared of the right things.
The real threat isn’t personal, it is societal: How do we keep a diffuse bunch of like-minded radicals from getting us to turn on one another, changing the way we live. Our peace of mind and our way of life are at stake. We need to refocus our thinking and our actions.
Americans are more worried about terrorism than gun violence, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. That emphasis is misplaced. Consider:
• There were some 164,000 homicides due to firearms between 2001 through 2014.
• Drunken drivers killed more than 170,000 people, during that same period.
Yet there is no political will to substantially rein in our gun violence or drunken driving.
In those same years, more than 50,000 people drowned and more than 60,000 pedestrians were killed. Are you afraid to go for a boat ride or walk on the streets?
Obliviously, we go after the small stuff instead of what really matters. How can a nation morbidly afraid of fat, carbohydrates, sugar, gluten, nuts and genetically modified food destroy the killer Islamic State? How can a nation fixated on micro-aggressions on college campuses face the macro-aggressions of al Qaeda or the Taliban at home and abroad? How can a nation that went red alert over a single homeland case of Ebola redirect its energies to metastasized terrorist cells?
Beyond commonsense precautions that do save lives, here are a few smart measures we can take to restore our sense of proportion and preserve our core values:
Name the problem. Muslims in the United States want to live the American dream, not destroy it. But for those few bent on destruction, the terms “radical Islamic terrorist” or jihadist are descriptive of a particular agenda, not a religion and those who practice it. We need to acknowledge that we are at war with radical Islamic terrorists, not terrorism.
Remember, Je suis Charlie. One year ago, after a murderous attack at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, our country was missing in action at the subsequent solidarity march in Paris: More than 50 world leaders showed up, but high-ranking U.S. officials did not. We need to stand on the front lines, too.
Respect First Amendment rights. That means vigilance in maintaining the separation of church and state — not favoring one religion over another in the public square or allowing any one group to impose its tenets upon the whole nation. We need to protect tasteless, provocative and even what some consider offensive speech.
Practice resolve. We cannot allow so-called credible terrorist e-mails to shut down large public school districts as Los Angeles Unified did when it sent home 700,000 students in December. Even thinking safety first, we would do so at great peril to the students. We need to be strong.
Protect human rights. In fundamentalist Muslim countries, women and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community suffer. We can make no excuses for oppression.
Speak out against un-American ideas. There can be restrictions on immigration or basic rights based exclusively on religion. We need to distinguish between religious beliefs and using religion as an excuse for unacceptable behavior.
Recognize that all lives matter. In 2014, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Syria accounted for 79 percent of global terrorist attack fatalities, according to U.S. State Department statistics. Yes, those individuals lived far away, but we are united with them by a common enemy and our humanity.
We are still finding our way in this new kind of war with an enemy that knows no borders and abides by no law. In this unfamiliar landscape, we are in danger of losing our best selves to fear because we cannot accurately assess the difference between personal and collective risk. Our challenge is to be scared of the right things in order to protect ourselves, but also to promote our ideals and project our best selves to friends and foes alike.