Realistically Assessing the Danger of Terrorism From Immigration

Jay Inslee, the governor of the U.S. state of Washington, where I live, is my hero. Most governors have proclaimed their opposition to having Syrian refugees enter their states out of fear that they might commit acts of terror, and most Americans are opposed to admitting the refugees into the U.S., but Mr. Inslee has voiced his support for accepting the refugees after they have been screened for security threats. He has stated, “I have always believed that the United States is a place of refuge for those escaping persecution, starvation or other horrors that thankfully most in America will never experience… I told Washingtonians that I wouldn’t join those who wanted to demonize people because of the country they flee or the religion they practice. I will uphold our reputation as a place that embraces compassion and equality and eschews fear-mongering…”

At issue is the fate of a relatively small group of Syrian refugees, only 10,000 out of millions seeking a safe home abroad. Open borders advocates like myself would prefer the admission to the U.S. of as many refugees as wish to come, excepting any who might be security threats. But accepting the 10,000 is better than not accepting any. It is the right thing to do from an open borders perspective, and as Phil Mader and I have argued, a tool for dealing with terrorism. Mr. Mader points out that refusing Muslim refugees would alienate the refugees, who could be our “natural allies” if allowed to immigrate.  Similarly, I have noted that Muslim immigrants could provide cultural and language skills in the effort against Islamic terrorism.

Beyond providing support for the admission of the refugees, Mr. Inslee correctly urges perspective on the risk involved in admitting the refugees. Referring to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, he writes that “there is no guarantee that the same thing can’t happen here, and no way to erase all risk.” However, “we can take a deep breath, stand up straight and make a realistic assessment of risk.”

Indeed, the terrorist risk to the U.S. posed by the refugees, who will undergo rigorous screening before being admitted, and by Muslim immigrants in general, is minimal, especially when compared to other threats. As has been previously observed, most Muslims are peaceful. American currently has over 2.5  million Muslims, about two thirds of whom are immigrants, but very few are involved in terrorism. Since 9/11, there have been 26 people killed and about 200 wounded from jihadist attacks in the U.S.  (An attack by a Muslim immigrant that killed 4 marines in Tennessee last summer also may have been motivated by radical Islam. ) Most of the eight attackers were born in the U.S., and some were African-American, with no apparent recent immigrant ancestors.

Meanwhile, American right wing extremists have killed more people (48) in the U.S. since 9/11 than have radical Muslims. Most of these attacks were committed by white male Americans. And the second deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history was committed by a white antigovernment extremist in 1995: the truck bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people, 19 of whom were children.

White males are also responsible for most of the mass
shootings in the U.S. Mother Jones collected more than thirty years of data on public mass shootings in the U.S. which involved indiscriminate killing and the killing of at least four people. Apparently 44 out of 64 perpetrators were white males with no apparent connection to Islam or immigration. (2 of these mass shootings were included in the data on right wing and jihadist attacks.) Dana Ford of CNN writes that “the man who opened fire at a Charleston church on June 17, killing nine people, joined a list many would like to forget. Dylann Roof. Adam Lanza. James Holmes. Jared Loughner. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Their names stir painful memories and conjure images of hate and violence. The killers have other characteristics in common too: They either were, or are, young, white and male.” Texas mayor Mike Rawlings states that he is “more fearful of large gatherings of young white men that come into schools, theaters and shoot people up” than Syrian refugees.

More importantly, all of these jihadist and right-wing attacks and mass shootings are extremely rare and account for a minuscule portion of premature deaths in the U.S. According to Politifact, about 300,000 people in the U.S. have been killed by guns over the last decade, compared to less than a hundred deaths from extremist, both right wing and jihadist, attacks. Deaths from mass shootings have been in the low hundreds in recent years.

Beyond violent deaths, over a third of early deaths in the US. are due to behaviors such as using tobacco, eating a poor diet, and not getting enough exercise.  According to the Population Reference Bureau, “diet alone accounted for more than 650,000 early deaths in 2010.” Almost 19,000 people were killed in car accidents during the first half of this year, along with nearly 2.3 million “serious injuries” from the accidents. Tens of thousands more die each year from chokings, fires, falls, drownings, and poisonings.

Of course, a single terrorist attack can cause enormous carnage and destruction. The 9/11 attacks killed almost 3,000 people directly and caused billions of dollars of damage. And the problem of jihadi terrorism may more likely arise in the offspring of immigrants. The Paris attacks were committed by Muslims who were apparently born in Europe.

However, the U.S. doesn’t seem to have a large number of alienated Muslim residents like Europe does, who may be more prone to committing acts of terror like those seen in Paris. Fortunately, America does a better job than Europe at integrating its immigrants.  It should continue to improve its ability to integrate newcomers, including Muslims.

As for catastrophic events like 9/11, fortunately they are rare, 9/11 itself was the work of temporary visitors to the U.S., not immigrants, and, as discussed, having more immigrants enter the U.S. could help our intelligence agencies foil future attacks. In addition, it should be noted that, as deadly and shocking as 9/11 was, the attack’s toll is dwarfed by the number of deaths resulting annually from accidents, guns, poor diets, and other causes. Moreover, rigorous screening of entrants from abroad, whether immigrants or temporary visitors, without significantly hindering the flow of immigrants, should continue to be the goal.

The minimal harm that Islamic terrorism has caused in the U.S., both absolutely and in comparison to other causes of early death, should reassure those concerned about the threat of terrorism from immigration, whether it involves 10,000 refugees or larger flows under open borders. As Mr. Inslee recommends, people need to realistically assess this risk.

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Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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