In the post-Cold War era, the United States has no real military rivals and faces no threats evenly remotely comparable to the former Soviet Union. But the American public and its leaders are hardly worry-free, as the nation confronts new reminders of the omnipresent dangers of terrorism.
Just last week, the U.S. military placed its forces in the Persian Gulf on the highest state of alert, in response to threats of terrorism from unspecified sources. Last year’s suicide attack on the USS Cole, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa three years ago, and the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 – for which indictments were just issued – all graphically demonstrated America’s vulnerability to terrorism.
These incidents have resonated strongly with the public, to the point where terrorism ranks as a more serious threat to the United States than China’s emergence as a world power or even Saddam Hussein’s continued rule in Iraq, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. The only threats seen as more serious than terrorism are other global concerns, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Only about a quarter believe instability in Russia is a serious threat, which underscores how much has changed in the decade since the Cold War ended.
More specifically, by an overwhelming margin the public rates the prospect of a terrorist smuggling weapons of mass destruction into the United States as a greater threat than a possible missile attack by North Korea or some other “rogue” nation. Fully 77% see a terrorist with a suitcase bomb as the greater danger, compared to just 10% who say a missile strike.