Obama Says Terrorism Is Not an Existential Threat

By Bruce Schneier
Monday, February 2, 2015, 12:00 PM

In an interview this week, President Obama said that terrorism does not pose an existential threat:

What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order. You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what's the -- you know, what's essence of who we are.

He said something similar in January.

On one hand, what he said is blindingly obvious; and overinflating terrorism's risks plays into the terrorists' hands. Climate change is an existential threat. So is a comet hitting the earth, intelligent robots taking over the planet, and genetically engineered viruses. There are lots of existential threats to humanity, and we can argue about their feasibility and probability. But terrorism is not one of them. Even things that actually kill tens of thousands of people each year -- car accidents, handguns, heart disease -- are not existential threats.

But no matter how obvious this is, until recently it hasn't been something that serious politicians have been able to say. When Vice President Biden said something similar last year, one commentary carried the headline "Truth or Gaffe?" In 2004, when presidential candidate John Kerry gave a common-sense answer to a question about the threat of terrorism, President Bush used those words in an attack ad. As far as I know, these comments by Obama and Biden are the first time major politicians are admitting that terrorism does not pose an existential threat and are not being pilloried for it.

Overreacting to the threat is still common, and exaggeration and fear still make good politics. But maybe now, a dozen years after 9/11, we can finally start having rational conversations about terrorism and security: what works, what doesn't, what's worth it, and what's not.