As the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches, an obvious question should be asked: Why has al Qaeda — the name given to the loosely affiliated terrorist network inspired by Osama bin Laden — not launched even one follow-up attack within the United States? Even more surprising is the fact that no Islamic terrorist organization of any kind has carried out such an attack on American soil.
Since 9/11, major terrorist attacks have taken place in Bali, Madrid and London, while Operation Iraqi Freedom has transformed Iraq into the world center for terrorist bombings, with dozens of such incidents every month. Indeed, given the outrage the Iraq war has occasioned in the Arab world in particular, and the Islamic world more generally, it’s difficult to understand how America has managed to avoid any terrorist incidents whatsoever.
This is especially true when one considers the sort of media-driven atmosphere of hysteria that would be created by a series of small attacks. Imagine if once every few months a terrorist group set off a car bomb on a busy city street, or opened fire with automatic weapons at a shopping mall, or even managed to poison a few fast-food cheeseburgers.
Given what sociologist Barry Glassner has called America’s culture of fear, even a few such incidents would have an enormous psychological impact in the age of 24-hour news channels and color-coded alert systems. After all, in a nation where basically freakish events like the Columbine shootings or the murder of a six-year-old beauty queen can lead to endless discussions about whether “our children are safe,” media-savvy terrorists could cause widespread panic by killing just a handful of people.
So why haven’t they?
Roughly speaking, three answers can be given to this question. The most pessimistic is that Islamic terrorists already in America are in the process of planning an attack that will dwarf 9/11 in scale, and that therefore small-scale attacks like those described above seem trivial to them. Although there’s no evidence for this theory, that hasn’t stopped people like former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer from publishing scenarios of death and destruction that, depending on one’s point of view, are either sobering cautionary tales or elaborate paranoid fantasies.
The second answer is that those Islamic terrorist groups currently in the country have no capacity to carry out a large-scale attack in the foreseeable future, and that they aren’t carrying out small-scale attacks because they don’t understand American culture, and therefore fail to grasp how psychologically effective such attacks would be.
The third answer for why we have been free of any Islamic terrorism since 9/11 is that, in part as a consequence of steps taken since that terrible day, there simply are no functioning Islamic terrorist groups in the United States at this time. This theory would seem to be backed by Ockham’s Razor _ the principle of logic that says the simplest explanation that can account for all the available facts is generally best.
Whatever the truth may be we should not lose sight of the fact that a nation that is home to approximately three million Arab-Americans and two million Muslims has failed to produce any sign of the sort of indigenous Islamic terrorist groups that were behind the Bali, Madrid and London bombings.
That a nation of 300 million extraordinarily diverse people, featuring thousands of miles of largely unguarded borders, has managed to stay terrorism-free over the course of the last four years can be interpreted several ways. But it’s certainly possible to draw the conclusion that, when it comes to terrorism, we have nothing to fear so much as fear itself.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)