THE BAD NEWS, especially for Americans, is this: Islamist terrorists really are out to get you. They cannot be deterred by prison sentences, "enhanced" interrogations, or the prospect of death. They consider the United States to be their mortal enemy, and they would like to kill as many Americans as possible, in as dramatic a way as possible. The more I look at their websites, watch their videos, and read their manifestos and discussion boards, the more I realize just what a brutal and inhumane bunch these people are. It is worth taking them seriously.
But there's good news, too, that is often overlooked: There aren't very many Islamist terrorists, and most are incompetent. They fight each other as much as they fight anybody else, and they fight their potential state sponsors most of all. They are outlaws on the run in almost every country in the world, and their bases have been reduced to ever-wilder patches of remote territory, where they have to limit their training activities to avoid satellite surveillance. Every year or two they pull off a sophisticated attack somewhere in the world, on top of the usual daily crop of violence, but the odds of their getting lucky and repeating an operation on the scale of 9/11 are long, given that no other attack in the history of Islamist terrorism has killed more than 400 people and only a dozen attacks have killed more than 200. A terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction would be devastating -- but devilishly difficult to pull off, which probably explains why it hasn't happened.
There will be more terrorist attacks, and some could be successful in killing hundreds of people, perhaps even thousands. Last year, Faisal Shahzad almost succeeded in an attack of this scale, filling a vehicle with explosives and parking it just off Times Square in New York City. As with the terrorist who drove through campus in Chapel Hill, incompetence saved the day -- Shahzad used faulty firecrackers as his detonator. We may not be so lucky in the future. But even if they succeed in killing thousands of us, attacks like these do not threaten our way of life, unless we let them.