Preventing the next terrorist attack is the primary objective of national security apparatus. With the scar of September 11 ingrained into the American consciousness, there is a societal pressure on leaders to ensure that the nonstate actors who wish to cause harm are prevented from doing so. This, of course, is an impossible mission. Segments of society fear the “others”—immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers—questioning their true intentions and have been debating the benefits of various immigration and tourist moratoriums as a means of self-defense.
A recent paper from the Cato Institute examined the risk factors and costs associated with foreign nationals participating in terrorist attacks since 1975, concluding that one terrorist entered the country for every 7.38 million non-terrorist foreigners. During the same period, there was an estimated minimum economic activity from immigration and tourism of $229.1 billion per year against the estimated terrorism cost of $5.28 billion per year. With a net economic benefit of $223.82 billion dollars a year, it is foolish to reduce or forbid immigration for fear of terrorism.
This is not to discount the human cost of terrorism, but it must be kept within perspective. A society cannot thrive with absolute security. External and internal terrorist actions are not mutually exclusive. With terrorist causes ranging the spectrum of political, economic, and social issues, there is no reason to believe that preventing foreign entry into the United States will make the nation inherently safe from terror attacks. The Anti-Deformation League attributes only 52 deaths to terrorism in 2015, with 19 of those deaths attributed to Islamic terrorism. White Supremacy, anti-government, and anti-abortion extremism caused nearly double that number of deaths. This should be considered against traditional crime rates—for example, Chicago documented nearly 500 murders in the same time period. It must be asked if the resources and weight given to terrorism provides the best return on our security investments from that perspective.
We make choices every day that balance the need for a functional society with safety. The threat of terrorism is no different. It is a risk that must be mitigated like any other crime by responsible and reasonable prevention tactics. Terrorism is an aspect of life that we cannot tolerate but also cannot be allowed to overwhelm our sense of safety with a radically disproportionate response. It is the spectacle and reaction of the attack that benefits the terrorist, as rarely is their chosen target of direct significance towards reaching their political objective—the objective is to be given a platform to spread their message.
With the increasing interconnectivity of the world, ideas are able to spread much faster than people. Terrorist organizations are taking advantage of this border-bypassing connection to reach out to vulnerable individuals. By doing so, they can inspire an individual to commit an act of terror or otherwise provide support to their cause.
Radicalization does not occur in a vacuum and it does not happen quickly. It is a slow process that requires increasingly deep interactions with a recruiter or social group that shares their beliefs with the potential recruit. Those who are committing the terrorist attacks we fear often have one characteristic in common: they perceive themselves as disenfranchised from greater societal life in some capacity. Youth from sub-cultures that have difficulty assimilating with the larger culture are a demographic that is particularly at risk for falling for the rhetoric of a terrorist leader or ideology as they look for meaning and purpose in a place where they may not have opportunity. A successful counterterrorism campaign will need a heavy social outreach component that would respectfully work towards assimilation and opportunities for youth as well as countering the message of violent extremist influencers.
An anti-immigration policy that aims to restrict immigration in the name of security is nothing more than a dog whistle with an ulterior motive. The threat of foreign-born persons coming to the United States to commit acts of terror is so low as to be largely insignificant due in large part to the consular officers and security personnel who are responsible for screening visa applicants and holders. They are spectacularly meeting their mission of ensuring that the nation is kept safe from external threats. If we as a nation institute a federal policy restricting immigration or reducing our responsibilities to refugees and asylum seekers, it would be based on nothing more than short-sighted xenophobic notions.