Witness for the Prosecution

Another two weeks go by, another islamist attack in Europe. This time, too, nothing changed. There are lots of vigils, lots of expressions of solidarity, and of course lots of reminders that not all muslims are violent extremists. Theresa May did break rank a bit and call out radical Islamism as an ideology, but this does nothing but go back to what used to be acceptable during the Bush Administration anyway. As usual, no one seems to be talking openly about any long-term shift in strategy. I suspect that’s because people appreciate that casualty levels are still low. Just like with mass shooting events, the public can ultimately see through the media hype; it knows that just because something is shocking and omnipresent in the news, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s a clear and present danger to their individual lives. Your chances of dying in a terrorist attack remain about the same as your chances of dying in a lightning strike.

If there’s one thing that was a little bit different this time, it was that friends on Facebook were sharing this 2015 report from the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security which shows that local law enforcement considers "anti-government terrorism" to be a greater threat than Islamic terrorism in the United States. It will be disappointing to the Southern Poverty Law Cener, but "anti-government terrorism" actually isn’t a euphemism for "white nationalism" this time. There is a separate category for "Racist Violent Extremism," and it comes in fourth overall in perceived threats, behind "Anti-government Violent Extremism," "Al-Qaeda Inspired Violent Extremism," and "Environmental Violent Extremism." So, we’re really talking about Freemen-type militia groups.

I assume the reason this is making the rounds this time in a way it didn’t two weeks ago is because it’s responding to President Trump’s ill-advised1 tweet politicizing the London attack to push his travel ban. Of course, he was busy doing that anyway: the Department of Justice filed a petition for review of previous circuit court decisions with the Supreme Court last Thursday, and the Court has agreed to expedite the hearing. So, I assume this report is in the air because it’s showing up on websites of interest groups opposed to the travel ban who are in the process of preparing their amicus curiae briefs for the Supreme Court. No doubt it will feature heavily in the citations!

To my eyes, though, it actually makes the opposite case the people sharing it think it does. Basically, the methodology here was to ask a lot of local law enforcement agencies to rate, on a scale of 1-5, how serious they perceived each of 7 categories of threat to be to their local jurisdiction, and nationally. The perceived threat of terrorism is evidently quite low: few local agencies categorized anything above a 3. But overall, the threat from Islamic terrorism was in a close second to "anti-government" terrorism.

Stop to think about that. Muslims make up about 0.9% of the US population, and yet somehow radical Islam accounts for anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 – depending on locality – of the terrorist threat that local officials worry about and prepare for. Islam may not be the biggest threat in absolute terms, but in proportional terms it’s running the board. Moreover, even in absolute terms it’s one of the top two priorities that local agencies are focused on. Trying to dismiss it as "secondary" would be like saying that we should ignore rape reports because they’re "secondary" to murder. If you pushed that line, law enforcement would sensibly tell you that all of their high crime prevention priorities are priorities. But let’s just stop to consider this again: 0.9% of the population in the US is somehow responsible for 33-50% of the terrorist threat the nation faces. That’s not trivial.

More to the point, it’s a pretty solid argument for a travel ban. No, it’s not a conclusive argument (I’m mildly agnostic about it as a policy, and I think that the order as written is likely unconstitutional – though I’m also not too impressed with some of the circuit court reasoning on that front), but if a very thin segment of your population is responsible for a dramatically outsized proportion of the terrorist threat your country faces, then encouraging immigration of exactly that chunk of the population can really do nothing make the overall threat worse. Whatever else the report does, it establishes beyond a doubt that muslisms are, in per capita terms, far and away the most problematic portion of the population where the terrorist threat is concerned. That’s a check in Trump’s column, whether or not you support the travel ban per se.

My position is unchanged from what it was two weeks ago. The threat level is still low enough that I don’t see much need to change the status quo. At the same time, I don’t see the argument that we need to change as stupid. What IS stupid is being the type of person who attends vigils and calls for solidarity with the local muslim community in the wake of impending "hate crimes" that so far have always been significantly milder than the attacks themselves (when they come at all). This is stupid because if you think these events are big enough to be calls to action, then you should choose to take actions that actually stand a chance of changing things. You know by this point that tearful pleas and tough talk from politicians are a waste of time. If you want the attacks to stop altogther, you’re going to have to change tactics to something that is both politically feasible and radically different to what we’ve been doing so far. Otherwise, you’re doing nothing other than expending a lot of time and energy to say "carry on," and that’s at odds with your rhetoric.


  1. I don’t mean to say that the president shouldn’t respond to world events with policy proposals. The attack in London was political, after all, so it’s ultimately the attackers who "politicized" it. I just mean it’s in bad taste that his first response to the attack was a political tweet rather than an expression of sympathy. The political response should’ve waited half a day or so.

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