The bombings that took place in Chelsea and New Jersey over the weekend managed to be both frightening and, in a strange way, inspiring. They were frightening, obviously, because they reminded us that, given the realities of modern technology and its dissemination of information, we can never hope to be entirely safe against the threat of terrorism. Whether or not the suspected bomber had a direct relationship with ISIS or other foreign groups, or, as so often now, an indirect one, or none at all, information about how to construct bombs is now so widely available that it is impossible to build complete immunity against terrorism, certainly not in anything still resembling an open society. For all the ingenuity and obvious efficiency of the New York Police Department and its fellows—qualities that have made terrorism in the city since 9/11 far more infrequent than anyone might have imagined in those panicky days and months after it—there is no such thing as no risk. There will be more bombings, and there will be other bombers.
The more inspiring news is that, despite that truth, the response of the people of New York was not merely “bold” or “courageous,” or all those other words we use, sometimes obnoxiously, to congratulate ourselves. It was marked by something even better: cool, plain, dull indifference. It was as if New Yorkers were, after a difficult decade, finally internalizing the numerical realities of the threat that terrorism presents and the threat it doesn’t—of what terrorism is and isn’t. (And it was also a nice illustration of Jane Jacobs’s principle that there are many advantages in having eyes on the street.)
We can never get the risk level to zero. Still, the idea—still taboo to say, still disallowed from articulation, still too shocking to be uttered, certainly on cable television’s non-stop anxiety rounds—ought to be that terrorism remains as close to that as we can hope to find in this fatal world. The risks we take getting in a car or getting married (given how often spouses murder each other) or just walking outside—not to mention the risks that we take in owning a gun—are far higher than the risk that we run from terrorism. As The Economist pointed out in a useful rundown of the statistical truths not long ago, the risk of an American being killed by terrorism in the decade after 9/11 and up to 2013 was one in fifty-six million, adding, “The chance of being the victim in 2013 of an ordinary homicide in the United States was one in 20,000. Traffic accidents are three times as lethal.” President Obama has suggested as much at times, but it’s not what people want to hear, and the wisdom of probabilities is taken to be indifference to risk.
The question becomes why we develop such a high level of fright about such a low-level probability. Why are so many still so easily panicked? One reason is that there are political movements and politicians who think to benefit from them, Donald Trump chief among them right now. Whether it is that his own cowardice pushes him to impute anxiety to others or that his own cynicism leads him to exploit it, he benefits from panicked people. The more scared people are made, the more likely they are to turn to a strongman to reassure them. It is an ancient—and always duplicitous and disappointing—formula.