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American overreaction about ISIS isn't just wrong — it's dangerous

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal...
Even the conservative Wall Street Journal...
(Erkan Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

When you think about the reasons not to build a new subway line in Los Angeles, "ISIS might bomb it" probably isn't at the top of the list. Yet that's exactly what the Beverly Hills school system — of course it's Beverly Hills — is saying, as part of a campaign to keep the proposed subway from running under their high school.

Beverly Hills Board of Education President Noah Margo explained, "In the mind of a terrorist, placing a subway directly under a high school is like pushing a baby stroller into rush hour traffic."

Yet he's hardly the only person panicking about terrorism in the past months. Since the war against ISIS began, the United States has been going through another national freakout about terrorism. And if we don't get it in check, it could end in another military disaster in the Middle East — a brutal, unending ground war that gets American servicemembers killed and only makes the situation in Iraq and Syria worse.

Panic is happening

NYPD isis

NYPD officers stand guard outside Times Square after a blog allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) mentioned Times Square as a target for bombing. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The national freakout seems to have began around Aug. 19, when ISIS released the video of journalist James Foley's execution. The murders of Foley and fellow journalist Steven Sotloff were, according to an NBC/WSJ poll, the two best-known news events since 2009. By Sept. 8, 94 percent of Americans had seen news coverage of the events. To put it in perspective, 78 percent of Americans remember seeing reports on the 2012 decision upholding the Affordable Care Act. And that was pretty well-covered!

That same poll also reported the highest number of Americans ever saying the country was less safe now than it was before 9/11. A full 47 percent said we're less safe — a 19-point jump from last year's number.

Little has changed since the president announced a full-scale plan to destroy ISIS on Sept. 10. A Sept. 23 Gallup poll found that 81 percent of Americans think ISIS is a "critical" or "important" threat to US "vital interests." 87 percent of Americans are "very" or "somewhat" concerned about "the current situation regarding ISIS forces," according to a September 29 CNN poll. Support for military action against ISIS is broad and bipartisan.

And yet the evidence that ISIS poses a direct threat to the United States is relatively weak. Independent experts believe that ISIS isn't yet very interested in, or really capable of, attacking the American homeland. The intelligence community hasn't found a single active ISIS plot against the US. And even President Obama admits that ISIS isn't yet capable of directly hitting targets outside of the Middle East.

So why is that a plurality of Americans believe that the United States is more vulnerable than it was before the deadliest attack on the US homeland in history?

Literally everybody is to blame

The ISIS panic didn't come from nowhere. The national media, the Obama administration, and Congressional Republicans all helped freak people out.

Huffington Post count found that ISIS was mentioned 3,800 times between Aug. 26 and Sept. 9 — on CNN aloneGallup found that three-quarters of Americans are following the issue "very" or "somewhat" closely. That coverage is clearly helping sell ISIS as a major threat. "Approval of the U.S. military action," according to Gallup, "is significantly higher among those following [the ISIS crisis] very or somewhat closely."

This isn't just a media problem, though. News outlets often just report what politicians and military leaders say — which has been pretty intense.

ISIS is  an "imminent threat to every interest we had," Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said. Vice President Biden pledged to "follow them to the gates of hell." Sen. Ted Cruz and Governor Rick Perry warned that ISIS operatives may be planning to sneak across the Mexican border (there is no proof of this).

All of this marks what Josh Marshall called "the return of terror politics," referring to the post-9/11 political approach to terrorism, where the question wasn't so much what to do about terrorism as who can seem "tougher" on it. That gives politicians an incentive to inflate the threat.

And ISIS is shaping up to be a major Republican theme in the 2014 elections. "Radical terrorists are threatening the collapse of our country," New Hampshire Senate hopeful Scott Brown said in a television ad, as images of the ISIS flag fly by. "President Obama and Senator [Jeanne] Shaheen seem confused about the nature of the threat — not me." The collapse of our country!

National Journal's Dick Polman reports that this kind of apocalyptic rhetoric is becoming increasingly de rigeur. The National Republican Congressional Committee is running "weak on terror" ads against Democrats in four different states — and we've still got a full month of campaigning to go.

How this risks a much bigger war

US soldier Baghdad 2008 (Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images)

A US soldier in Baghdad in 2008. (Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images)

As the perception of ISIS as a threat grows, so does support for military action against the group. By late September, 60 percent of Americans were endorsing strikes in both Iraq and Syria. That support is bipartisan: 64 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans endorse strikes (only 55 percent of independents support them, dragging the average down).

Unless large numbers of Americans are dying in a war, people in the US tend to basically agree with what the elected officials in their party tell them on world politics. So if Democrats and Republicans agree on the need to aggressively combat ISIS, the public will mostly go along.

In a 2010 paper, Syracuse's Shana Kushner Gadarian found that Americans become more willing to endorse the use of force if they hear about terrorist threats in the media. She writes: "when people concerned about terrorism hear that a terrorist attack is likely and will bring fire and destruction worse than 9/11, they adopt hawkish policies."

Most polls find that Americans generally oppose putting US combat troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria. But a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that a plurality — 45 percent —would support ground troops "if it were determined by the military commanders that [they were] the best way to defeat the ISIS army." At least two high-profile generalsChairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and Central Command chief Lloyd Austin — have asked for troops.

Ground troops are President Obama's red line: he thinks, probably rightly, that they would only make the situation worse. It certainly doesn't look like Obama will budge on this, even with the pressure from the public and Republicans. But his successor might.

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