A Sensible Response to Terrorism

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As you probably know, a white guy entranced by an extremely version of Tea Party-style right-populist paranoia deliberately crashed an airplane into an IRS building in Texas yesterday. I’m not especially interested in debating semantics, but I think it’s very clear that if this had been done by a brownish-looking Muslim guy whose suicide note paralleled Islamist political themes that the right wing would be pissing its pants and demanding that anyone who refused the label the attack “terrorism” be put up on treason charges. But the new rules seem to be that politically motivated violence when undertaken by white people isn’t terrorism.

But instead of complaining about the hypocrisy involved in not trying to whip people into a fit of terror and madness about this incident, I think it makes more sense to congratulate everyone on handling this in a calm and sensible manner. The key point, that all authorities seem to agree on, is that while this is a serious crime and a genuinely Bad Thing To Have Happen, that you need to put the likelihood of this sort of incident into a broader context. Simply put, the odds of “death by disgruntled anti-tax activist flying an airplane into your office” are extremely small and it’s extremely difficult to think of cost-effective and efficacious methods of ensuring that this never happens again. Off the top of my head, this looks to me like a demonstration of the desirability of better mental health services in the United States, but that’s something that I would think was true one way or the other.

Stack’s stated purpose for undertaking the attack was to try to prompt a counterproductive overreaction: “I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are.” It’s smart, then, that as a country we’re responding to his terrorism by trying to avoid counterproductive overreactions. But of course this is also Osama bin Laden’s goal and it’s also appropriate to respond to Islamist political violence in a similar spirit. We shouldn’t be indifferent to the risk of death by Islamist terrorism any more than we should be indifferent to America’s unusually high rate of non-political homicides or to America’s alarmingly high infant mortality rate or its large number of deaths in car crashes. But it’s important to try to think about all these problems in a rational spirit, and adopt reasonable policy responses.