The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks drastically altered daily norms for many Americans, from heightened security measures at airports to the expectation that a camera is watching every move in public.
The government also responded by creating preventive security systems, improving cooperation between state and federal agencies, and raising awareness among US residents.
“All of that has happened and the question is, how successful has it been?” said Krista Wiegand, an associate professor in UT’s Department of Political Science. “The challenge is that the federal government is unwilling to share information about potential attacks that were halted to protect national security information. So it’s hard to figure out how many of these attacks have been thwarted because of these measures.”
Wiegand also is director of conflict processes research in the Global Security program at UT’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy.
Contrary to many Americans’ fears, however, the potential of attacks by outside radical Islamist groups on US soil is low, she said. Wiegand noted that most of the domestic attacks have been conducted by individual American citizens who take it upon themselves to inflict damage.
“The risk of death by terrorism is extremely low—one in twenty million,” Wiegand said. “You have a much better chance of being killed by a piece of furniture falling on you or by lightning. But we’re not terrorized by falling furniture. We’re terrorized by attacks. Driving a car is more dangerous than riding in a plane, but because more people are killed that way at one time, plane crashes are given more attention.”
In 2015, 37 percent of domestic terrorism in the United States was linked to people who were influenced by radical Islam. By contrast, 38 percent was linked to those influenced by white supremacy, “but white supremacy is not viewed as terrorism because its followers are not foreign,” Wiegand said.
Long before an individual is influenced by an ideology—whether white supremacy or radical Islam—he or she becomes frustrated and discontented with personal situations and experiences such as economic inequality, discrimination, or alienation, said Brandon Prins, a UT professor of political science who studies international relations.
The ideologies become something they can latch on to find a new sense of identity, he said.
The September 11 attacks increased Americans’ suspicion of people who are different—something terrorist groups outside the United States are trying to exploit.
For example, the misperception of many Americans that Muslims are terrorists may cause them to discriminate and implement policies that are repressive of Muslims, Prins said. As a result, American Muslims would feel like outsiders in their own country and some may become radicalized.
“It’s a way of pushing people into the arms of terrorists,” he said.
As the country approaches the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Prins cautioned against overreaction to the issue of terrorism.
“We need to always pause and realize that the world we live in is not abnormally violent and that these terrorist groups are not a break with the past,” he said. “Young men have always gone to fight with groups all over the world, whether it’s with Franco in Spain or the British. We need to realize that we’re not in a fundamentally different world and that to become the victim of a terrorist attack is still seemingly rare.”
There is temptation to give in to fear as Americans see violence occur abroad and at home, Wiegand said.
“There are people who are afraid to travel outside the US and are afraid to interact with Muslims or people who are different from them walking down the street,” she said. “My advice is not to let that happen because that’s exactly what terrorists want—us to be living in fear.
“Yes, there are bad people out there and there will always be threats to national security from groups, but we can’t live our lives assuming the worst.”
Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, firstname.lastname@example.org)