After Paris and before San Bernardino a Washington-Post ABC News poll found that 83 percent of registered voters perceive “a terrorist attack in the United States resulting in large casualties is likely in the near future.”
In a more recent poll seventy-seven percent of Americans express significant skepticism that it is possible to stop terrorist attacks carried out by individuals, so-called “lone wolfs” or those inspired but not directed by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and similar organizations. There is much more confidence that larger-scale coordinated attacks can be preempted. But even here a majority of poll respondents doubt all such attacks can be stopped.
The media reports on these polls (linked above) tend to perceive increasing anxiety or fear and focus on political consequences.
But the more recent poll, conducted between December 10 – 13, also asked the question, “How worried are you that you or someone in your family will become a victim of terrorism?” Despite (because of?) the proximity of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks the percentage responding as “not too worried” or “not worried at all” increased from 49 percent in a June poll to 57 percent last week.
These survey results seem coherent with my own perceptions:
Continued terrorist attacks on the United States are likely. Variations of the Boston bombings or San Bernardino shootings are most likely. An urban swarm attack, ala Mumbai or Paris, will — almost certainly — eventually be carried out.
We should be proactive and smart in taking reasonable and effective steps to reduce these probabilities. In the homeland security domain this ranges from a strategy of social solidarity to well-targeted intelligence operations. But at some time and place all of our best efforts will fail.
In any case, these terrorist operations are unlikely to directly threaten me or my family directly. They do not — or at least, need not — present an existential threat to the nation.
Given the polls reported above, other recent polls, and my own conversations with a wide range of Americans, it would seem that more than sixty percent share very similar views. It is, it seems to me, a very realistic perspective on probabilities.
It is remarkable that political leadership seems unwilling or unable to build-on the realism of a significant majority of the population. It is even worse when some putative leaders are focused on stoking an unachievable fantasy of complete security on the part of a fearful minority.
UPDATE: On December 16 the Department of Homeland Security released a National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin, a new approach to providing public alert. Rather than the old (bad) color codes, it attempts to provide some context. The first alert opens with:
We are in a new phase in the global threat environment, which has implications on the homeland. Particularly with the rise in use by terrorist groups of the Internet to inspire and recruit, we are concerned about the “self-radicalized” actor(s) who could strike with little or no notice. Recent attacks and attempted attacks internationally and in the homeland warrant increased security, as well as increased public vigilance and awareness.
This is hardly new, but perhaps someone had been waiting for “official” notice.