To help put the attacks in context, USA TODAY’s Greg Toppo talked to Kurzman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of several books on Islam, the Middle East and terrorism, including the 2011 book The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists.
Q: In 2016, how likely is it that an American will be killed by a terrorist, Muslim or non-Muslim?
A: Fortunately, terrorism has been very rare in the United States. Thus far in 2016, there have been three acts of violent extremism by Muslim-Americans, by my count, resulting in 49 deaths, all of whom were killed in the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando in June. This is the highest death toll from Islamic terrorism that the country has experienced since 2001. There is no comparable count of non-Muslim terrorism in the United States, but the total is also very low. Terrorism frightens people far out of proportion to the actual number of victims — indeed, that is its primary goal: to create a sense of terror.
Q: You note that since Sept. 11, 2001, 118 people in the United States have been killed by terror attacks perpetrated by Muslim-Americans. Yet in the same 15-year period, more than 230,000 Americans have been murdered, mostly by their fellow Americans. Why the disproportionate response to terrorism?
A: The United States has a zero-tolerance policy for Islamic terrorism, which is quite different from our attitude toward other forms of violence. The country has committed billions of dollars and amended our civil liberties in order to combat terrorism, and many politicians want to go even further.
Q: This may seem like a naive question, but why the “zero-tolerance” policy for Islamic terrorism, but not for much more pervasive kinds of violence?
A: The country has become fixated on incidents of Islamic terrorism — we consume non-stop coverage and seek out more on social media. Other forms of violence have to be particularly noteworthy in order to attract this level of attention. One reason for this discrepancy may be the concerted political campaign to demonize Muslim-Americans as a political wedge issue, which has led anti-Islamic attitudes to increase in recent years, even as the trauma of 9/11 has receded.
Q: You’ve said that the likelihood of being killed by a Muslim in the United States is lower than the likelihood that one could be killed for being Muslim. Why is this not a point that we hear Muslim-American leaders making?
A: So far this year, three Muslim-Americans have been killed for being Muslim — two men outside a mosque in New York and one man killed by a neighbor in Tulsa — for a rate of approximately one in 1 million. The rate of Americans killed by Muslim-American extremists so far this year — 49 fatalities in a population of more than 300 million — is approximately one in 6 million. This fear of backlash violence against Muslim-Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom have nothing to do with terrorism, is very much on the mind of Muslims in the United States, both leaders and community members.
Q: If terror attacks are so rare, as you say, how should our leaders respond, both politically and practically? What place should terrorism, and preparedness for it, have in public life?
A: I would like to see an evidence-based approach to terrorism, in which our policies are calibrated to the actual scale of the problem. This would be similar to our approach to public health and other fields of public safety, where we devote more resources to the biggest threats. It is hard for politicians to achieve proportionality with terrorism, however, because any rollback of our post-9/11 security posture would make them vulnerable to criticism when the next incidents occur, as they inevitably will. They will only re-assess our posture when public opinion becomes more resilient, puts this violence in perspective, and relaxes the fixation on terrorist incidents.