Balancing Terror and Reality in State of the Union Address

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Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON — When President Obama speaks to the nation in his final State of the Union address on Tuesday night, he will offer a familiar reassurance that the country is expending enormous effort to protect Americans against international terrorism.

Here is what he probably will not say, at least not this bluntly: Americans are more likely to die in a car crash, drown in a bathtub or be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist. The news media is complicit in inflating the sense of danger. The Islamic State does not pose an existential threat to the United States.

He will presumably not say this, either: Given how hard it is for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect people who have become radicalized, like those who opened fire at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., a certain number of relatively low-level terrorist attacks may be inevitable, and Americans may have to learn to adapt the way Israel has.

By all accounts, Mr. Obama is sympathetic to this view, which is shared by a number of counterterrorism veterans who contend that anxiety has warped the American public’s perspective. But it is also a politically untenable argument at a time when polls show greater fears about terrorism than at any point since the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. As it is, critics contend that Mr. Obama does not take the threat seriously enough and has not done enough to guard the nation against attack.

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President Obama, with aides on Monday, is expected to reassure Americans that enormous effort is being expended to fight terrorism. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

“Do we overemphasize terror? Yes,” said Juliette Kayyem, who served as an assistant Homeland Security secretary under Mr. Obama. “But there’s not much government can do about that. It’s a different kind of violence. It’s meant to elicit fear. So the fact that it does elicit fear is hard to refute.”

The effect on the public psyche is inherently more powerful than other dangers Americans accept every day. “Comparing it to shark attacks is apples and oranges,” she said, “and that’s the challenge for anyone trying to communicate risk.”

That dynamic frustrates Mr. Obama as he struggles to explain his approach to the threat. In a recent off-the-record meeting with columnists, he emphasized that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, did not threaten the United States in a fundamental way, according to people who were in the room.

As a result, he said, the danger does not merit an all-out military response involving American ground troops. He would send significant numbers of those forces to the Middle East, he added, only in the event of a terrorist attack in the United States so catastrophic that it all but paralyzed the country with fear.

The president is more careful about expressing such an analysis in public, acutely aware that his past comments have made him look as if he was underestimating the threat. When Mr. Obama at first called emerging groups like the Islamic State the “J.V. team” of terrorism, he looked as though he did not grasp its lethal reach after it seized parts of Iraq and Syria. When he more recently said the group had been “contained,” he looked as if he was out of touch, given the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino that followed.

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