At the height of the media craze surrounding the 2014 Ebola outbreak, two-thirds of Americans reported that they feared a widespread outbreak in the US. New York and New Jersey, despite significant criticism from the scientific community and Obama administration, established mandatory quarantines for aid workers returning from West Africa.
Ebola has since killed over 14,000 people worldwide, but only 1 in our country. In contrast, the flu killed between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans annually between 1976 and 2007, but has seldom garnered significant media attention or prompted mandatory quarantines. The divergent public responses to the two diseases reveal America’s tendency to classify foreign threats as national security risks and domestic threats as standard risks of everyday life – even though foreign threats may pose no greater danger to the health and safety of Americans.
Foreign threats include dangers originating from outside our geographic, cultural, or ideological borders. Ebola and Iranian nuclear arms are both foreign threats originating in other nations. An American-born Islamic terrorist is also perceived as a foreign threat, as the danger stems from outside of our cultural and ideological norms.
‘National security threat’ is a powerful label that evokes visceral fear among American citizens. It prompts the government to dedicate greater attention and resources to stopping the perceived danger. Perhaps more importantly, labeling something a security threat leads to limitations of civil liberties that would usually be unacceptable in combating standard risks.
Terrorism and gun violence further demonstrate the differences between responses to foreign and domestic threats. Since 9/11, few citizens have died in terrorist attacks on American soil, while in 2013 alone there were over 11,000 firearm homicides. However, because terrorism has been labeled a security threat while gun violence has not, the federal government allocates tremendous resources to counterterrorism but does little to mitigate gun deaths. The government justified the Patriot Act’s expanded surveillance on the basis of national security. Society would deem similarly invasive policies aimed at stopping gun deaths intolerable. In 1996, Congress even banned the CDC from funding firearm research, and it wasn’t until the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown that the ban was lifted.
Foreignness alone, however, should not dictate how our government allocates resources and restricts civil liberties. We should diminish the power that the national security label has. Individual circumstances call for distinct responses, and the label itself is not a justification for restricted freedoms and tremendous expenditure. For each threat, foreign or domestic, we should carefully analyze the risk to ordinary Americans and the likelihood that our efforts to mitigate the danger will prove effective. We should only limit civil liberties if doing so is necessary to alleviate the threat, and the threat is so severe that the benefits of restricting freedoms far outweigh the costs. Deliberate calculations, rather than rhetorical distinctions, must provide the basis for government actions that promote our safety.
Additionally, overemphasis on foreign security threats distracts us from more pressing domestic dangers. In a 2014 Gallup poll, 28% of Americans reported that they frequently or occasionally worry about being the victim of terrorism. Only 18% of Americans said the same of getting murdered, even though it is far more likely than a terrorist attack.
Foreign threats may garner greater attention because they are perceived as violations to our nation’s sovereignty and autonomy. Protecting our nation from external influences and dangers certainly serves citizens’ interests. But, relative to domestic threats, these foreign threats pose no inherently greater danger to the wellbeing of citizens. While it is essential to mitigate national security risks, we should weigh them equally with domestic threats, and treat all situations with the appropriate zeal.