SAO PAULO – American politics has been captured by terrorists. In December 2015, polls showed that one in six Americans, some 16% of the population, now identify terrorism as the most important national problem, up from just 3% in the previous month. This is the highest percentage of Americans to mention terrorism in a decade, although it is still lower than the 46% measured after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The effect of this change in public opinion has been particularly strong in the Republican presidential primary. It certainly boosted the candidacy of Donald Trump, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric has been particularly tough (if not incendiary). Some politicians are starting to call the battle against terrorism “World War III.”
Terrorism is a problem for the United States, as the attack in San Bernardino, California in December showed. But it has been blown out of proportion, both by the presidential candidates and by a news media that adheres to the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.” To put terrorism in proper perspective, Americans – and others – should bear in mind the following considerations.
Terrorism is a form of theater. Terrorists are more interested in capturing attention and putting their issue at the forefront of the agenda than in the number of deaths they cause per se. The Islamic State (ISIS) pays careful attention to stagecraft. The barbaric beheadings that are broadcast and disseminated through social media are designed to shock and outrage – and thereby capture attention. By exaggerating their effect and making every terrorist act a lead story, we play into their hands.