Esemplare ’18: Ignorance in the face of terror

Staff Columnist
Friday, March 25, 2016

Tuesday’s attacks in Brussels are a tragic reminder of the world’s vulnerability to acts of terror. Despite investments aimed at preventing terrorism, the nature of such attacks makes them difficult to completely eliminate. Their continued presence in the world’s consciousness is a testament to the resilience of terrorist organizations. In the modern era, it is difficult to have a dispassionate conversation about terrorism for obvious reasons. Senseless violence induces fear, and fear demands action. Such is the cycle that drives American counter-terrorism.

Logically, you already know that terrorism induces fear disproportionate to the threat it poses. In a world governed by rational, statistical reasoning, terrorism would not exist in its current state — terrorism isn’t effective because it kills people; it’s effective because it scares them.

There’s no question that terrorist attacks are scary. But it’s important and helpful to ask exactly how scared of them we should be, statistically speaking. The death of 31 innocent people is always tragic, but so are the deaths of the 3,287 people that die each day in car accidents worldwide. Before you let terrorism disrupt your travel plans, consider that you are a lot more likely to die on your way to the airport. Since 2002, terrorist attacks have been the cause of fewer than five deaths per year in the United States.

But this fact hasn’t stopped the terrorist attacks in Brussels from becoming a polarizing political issue. Shortly after the attack, Donald Trump tweeted opposition to what he saw as Hillary Clinton’s willingness to “let the Muslims flow in.” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-TX, called for increased “patrols” of Muslim areas in the United States.

Somewhere, I’d imagine, a terrorist smiled.

These suggestions are frighteningly reminiscent of past American embarrassments of fear-mongering and human rights abuses, like Japanese internment and, to go back further, the Salem witch hunts. Replace “Muslim” with “Jew,” and you’re hearing echoes of Adolf Hitler.

In America, terrorism has done much more than kill people. Time and again, we as Americans have been tragically ready to abandon our values, our morals and our humanity in the face of terror, and our politicians have been all too eager to play on the fears of their constituents. What should be solidarity and mourning is replaced by finger-pointing and violent backlash, and as such, the death of a small number of civilians disproportionately alters political discourse.

But excessive responses to acts of terror don’t just highlight the incompetence of many American politicians; they also provide the only realistic framework in which terrorism is effective. The reaction of the American political system perpetuates terrorism.

It is sometimes difficult to take a logical viewpoint on the issue of terrorism, but doing so is of utmost importance. In an ideal world, the United States could effectively crack down on terrorism and eliminate the relatively minor physical and tangible threat it poses to American citizens. But everything in this world has a cost. The costs of counter-terrorism efforts in this country are quickly exceeding the benefits.

From increasingly invasive surveillance to enhanced interrogation to outright discrimination, efforts in the United States to stop acts of terror have taken a toll on the values and freedoms that we claim to be protecting. The adage “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” has never been more true. It is fear — and fear alone — that turns 30 deaths into discrimination against millions.

Nicholas Esemplare ’18 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to