After mass shootings, like the one this weekend in Orlando, America always has one of two national conversations. Which one we have is determined not by the severity of the shooting but by the identity of the shooter.
If the shooter has any links to a jihadist group, however tenuous, we have the "terrorism" conversation. Conservatives propose aggressive military action against terrorist groups abroad and warn of a deep rot within the religion of Islam. Liberals warn against jumping to conclusions and preach about the consequences of overreaction.
If the suspect has no such links, we have the "guns" conservation. Liberals talk about the need for new gun control laws like background checks and argue that "something is wrong" with American gun culture. Conservatives warn against jumping to conclusions and preach about the consequences of overreaction.
We’re all used to this division of labor, given how often mass shootings happen in this country. The battle lines feel so familiar that they seem almost natural.
So we’re already gearing up for the "terrorism debate" post-Orlando, given suspect Omar Mateen’s alleged pledge of support for ISIS. You can hear it everywhere, from conservative reporters to Sunday talk shows to Donald Trump's Twitter feed.
This whole state of affairs is absurd. The truth is that in both the terrorism and guns debate, we’re asking the same question: What can be done to make this less likely to happen again? Part of the answer is, in both cases, "Make it harder to get guns."
We don't have two separate problems, a gun problem and a terrorism problem. We have a terrorism problem that feeds on our gun problem. And the more we treat terrorism as something totally separate from, and scarier than, our gun problem, the more we help terrorists seem stronger than they are — which is exactly what they want.
Why our terrorism problem is, in large part, a gun problem
The easiest way to see how arbitrary the distinction is between "gun violence" and "terrorism" is to look at what tools terrorists use to kill people.
"From 2002 to 2014, 85 percent of people killed by terrorists in the U.S. were killed using guns, according to our analysis," FiveThirtyEight's Carl Bialik writes. "Every terrorist attack in the U.S. last year in which someone other than the perpetrator was killed involved guns."
This is not especially surprising, Bialik explains, because guns are the easiest deadly weapon to acquire in the United States. "Arie Perliger, director of terrorism studies at the U.S. Military Academy, said that U.S. terrorists are turning to guns because since Sept. 11, the federal government has monitored the use of explosives and the trade of materials that can be turned into explosives," he writes.
Here’s a simpler way of putting Perliger’s point: Terrorists are not complete and total idiots. America’s lax gun laws aren’t some kind of secret, and terrorist leaders have been urging would-be jihadists to take advantage of them for years.
For instance, in 2011, the now-deceased American al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn released a video telling American jihadists to purchase guns and use them:
In the West, you’ve got a lot at your disposal. Let’s take America for example. America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?
This isn’t because guns look cool or because they’re more fun than knives. Terrorists want to use guns to kill Americans because guns are an extremely efficient way of killing people. That is what guns are designed to do.
Yet we barely limit access to them, and then act shocked when terrorists use guns for their intended purpose.
Terrorism and "harm reduction"
A sane debate on terrorism would start from different premises.
It would note that the AR-15 rifle that Mateen and other recent mass shooters have used could be banned if we chose to revive and update the 1994 assault weapons ban.
It would note that although Mateen bought his gun legally, a large percentage of "lone wolves" — terrorists with no formal link to any militant group — have criminal records. Universal background checks might block future lone wolves who fit the pattern from getting a gun.
It would further note that the overwhelming consensus in academic literature is that reducing legal access to guns reduces gun homicides. Terrorists and other criminals can maybe get guns on black markets, but it’s much harder than in a world where there are huge numbers of guns available for legal purchase. Fewer available guns means fewer gun murders.
Our intelligence community can’t catch every person with an extreme ideology and a gun. It just can’t. The easier it is to get guns, the easier it will be for a group like ISIS, or some lunatic inspired by ISIS, to kill large numbers of Americans. From this evidence, we’d maybe start talking about our gun laws as a counterterrorism problem.
That’s not what actually happens.
Once we hear the shooter has some kind of link to a terrorist group, we start talking about a completely different set of policies — mostly foreign ones. We talk about bombing ISIS, as if we weren't already doing that. We talk about the need to let the National Security Agency read all of our emails, though there’s no good evidence that the NSA has stopped a terror attack this way. We even talk about banning Muslims from entering the country, as if that’s even a remotely acceptable thing to discuss in a liberal democracy.
The magic of the "terrorism" label is to constrain our policy conversation — to declare a mass shooting the result of an amorphous international threat, and thus to make the conversation about policy responses about dealing with that threat. Treating terrorism like a "normal" crime issue is out of the question.
The issue with terrorist groups isn’t how to reduce the threat they pose to the United States; it’s how to eliminate it. We don't talk about lowering "terrorism rates" the way we do with murder or assault. Terrorism, rather, is understood to be a fundamental threat to the United States. Terrorist groups, unlike normal crime syndicates, must be rooted out and destroyed.
Dick Cheney has been out of office for more than a decade now. But his famous "1 percent" quote — "if there was even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction … the United States must now act as if it were a certainty" — still helps define the way we think about terrorism. It’s not a question of risk probabilities or harm reduction; it’s a question of absolute safety.
Why we need to make terrorism a "normal" issue
There’s a great irony to our approach to terrorism and gun violence: It gets the priorities absolutely backward. Gun violence is far deadlier than terrorism, and pretending otherwise makes terrorists seem far more powerful than they are — which is precisely what they’re hoping for.
Since 9/11, the US has devoted a tremendous amount of money and effort to reducing the threat to the American homeland. Some of this money has been wasted — I’m looking at you, TSA — but a lot of it hasn't. The result is that terrorist groups have had an astonishingly hard time striking the American homeland. Since 9/11, Americans have been more likely to be killed by their own furniture than by terrorists.
And Americans have been way, way more likely to die in "routine" gun violence — homicide or suicide, in particular. The following chart shows deaths from terrorism, including terrorist inspired shootings, as compared with gun deaths:
So we overreact to terrorism, treating it as existential threat, when the truth is that it is, like many other things, a non-existential threat, and one that can be ameliorated (if not eliminated) through prudent policy.
This is, of course, exactly what the terrorists want us to do. Their whole strategy is to launch attacks that terrorize Americans— what they can’t accomplish through strength they seek to accomplish through fear.
ISIS, unlike al-Qaeda before it, has placed a heavy emphasis on motivating individuals to kill outside organized plots. It has encouraged lone wolves like Omar Mateen, who have no formal links to the organization (that we’re aware of), to just go kill people and say they acted in the Islamic State’s name.
Why? ISIS has correctly recognized that this kind of attack is nearly impossible to detect in advance, and causes levels of panic in the target state that are wildly disproportionate to the actual damage done.
"What ISIS understands, more than al-Qaeda before, is that even fairly limited acts of violence can be very terrorizing," Peter Neumann, a professor at King's College London and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, told me after the similar San Bernardino, California, attacks. "Terrorism is not necessarily about the number of people you kill; it's about the terror you create."
For ISIS, sowing panic in the United States is a tactical victory far greater than simply killing Americans. It serves any number of strategic objectives: provoking a military overreaction, sparking a backlash against American Muslims that would fuel its "clash of civilizations" narrative, demonstrating its reach and power to admirers and thus beating out al-Qaeda for recruits, or simply retaliating for defeats in Iraq and Syria at America's hands. It's impossible to know exactly what the group's end game is with absolute certainty; ISIS doesn't exactly invite journalists and analysts to sit in on its strategy sessions.
But we do know, for a fact, that the goal of these attacks is to make ISIS seem strong at a time when it’s actually suffering defeat after defeat around the world. Separating terrorism from normal policy issues — treating a shooting like Orlando differently than any other shooting — helps sell this narrative.
The best thing we can do, instead of maintaining this separation between terrorism and "normal" shootings, is to treat terrorism like a normal shooting. Terrorism’s power depends on its separation from the normal, from maintaining the fiction that there is a massive reservoir of ISIS support in the United States just waiting to come get us.
"Terror is a sensation that depends on you believing that there is more to it than there is — that there is a whole movement behind these people," Neumann said. "And the reality is, of course, there isn't."
So let’s acknowledge that terrorism can be addressed through normal, not just extraordinary, means — that a mass shooting by a jihadist is no different from a mass shootings committed by a white supremacist, a misogynist, or someone who’s simply deranged, and it can be stopped the way any of those shootings could be stopped: by keeping the shooter from obtaining a gun.