Shortly after three men with knives and a van spent eight minutes murdering and maiming people at random on London Bridge, one of the Democratic Party’s leading voices on national security responded on Twitter. Chris Murphy began by criticizing Donald Trump for sounding the alarms. “My god,” he wrote. “@POTUS has no idea that the goal of terrorists is to instill a level of fear in the public disproportionate to the actual threat.” The Connecticut senator tried to put the threat in proper proportion. “Terrorism is a real threat,” he acknowledged, “but remember that since 9/11, you have a greater chance of being killed by a falling object than by terrorists.” Murphy then issued a five-point rebuttal to Trump’s approach to terrorism. He did not issue a five-point plan for defeating falling objects.
Maybe Murphy didn’t do this because falling objects are not equivalent to three men ramming and hacking people to death on London Bridge. Terrorists attack not just individuals but society, which makes mortality rates a poor measure of the danger terrorism poses. Falling objects “attack” neither. The men behind the carnage in London appear to have been inspired by ISIS, the same organization that has recently motivated young Muslim men to mow down civilians from Minya to Manchester, Berlin to Baghdad, Istanbul to Orlando, and beyond. Telling people not to be frightened by such acts—that fear is what the terrorists want—does not make those acts less frightening. Many people are scared by terrorism, despite the allegedly comforting statistics, because terrorism is scary. It’s designed to be. And most people recognize that while terrorism takes various forms, one of the most virulent strains these days is extremist violence committed in the name of Islam. They distinguish, in other words, between wobbly furniture and jihadist terror.