At best, exaggerating the threat of terrorism “means we lose perspective,” said John Horgan, a professor who studies the psychology of terrorism at Georgia State University. “We need to be able to talk about these threats in an informed way. And if we don’t, we will end up with counterterrorism policy grounded in emotions instead of evidence.” As Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a few years ago, Americans are about as likely to die in a terrorist attack as they are to be fatally crushed by their own furniture. “This is not to diminish the real—albeit shrinking—threat of terrorism,” Zenko concluded. “For Americans, however, it should emphasize that an irrational fear of terrorism is both unwarranted and a poor basis for public-policy decisions.”
If political leaders look for scapegoats or inaccurately assign blame for terrorist attacks, they can make it more difficult for the government to evaluate and respond to threats. As Trump described his plan for immigration restrictions on Monday, he suggested immigrants pose a grave threat to the U.S., in at least one instance without offering clear evidence. He promised to “suspend immigration from areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe, or our allies, until we understand how to end these threats.” He added that “we cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country, many of whom have the same thought process as this savage killer.” (A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a question about where this number came from.)
“Trump already has a tendency to overstate, exaggerate, and sometimes say things that are simply wrong,” said Martha Crenshaw, a terrorism expert at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. “In this case, the danger is that you stereotype a very large group of people as a danger to the security of the American homeland when it’s simply not true.”
Crenshaw’s research indicates there have been roughly 220 jihadist perpetrators or would-be perpetrators of violent terrorism against the U.S. since 1993. Most of the plots were unsuccessful. “When you leap into this and assume you know exactly why somebody did something and then blame a certain set of beliefs or ideas such as a religion or associate a person’s actions with an entire community of people, that narrative can take on a life of its own,” Crenshaw said. “It can be very difficult to correct these initial assumptions and assertions, even when they are not correct.”
Any claim that politicians can completely safeguard Americans from future terrorist attacks is unrealistic. In his speech, Trump made sweeping pledges to keep the country safe. He vowed to “protect and defend all Americans who live inside our borders” and “ensure every parent can raise their children in peace and safety,” promising outcomes no politician can guarantee.