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Are We Living In An Unprecedented Age Of Terror?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's attempt one of the hardest things to do after a terror attack - keeping the destruction in perspective. The latest big attack struck the international airport in Istanbul. That followed many other attacks in the U.S. and across Europe. So here's the question. Are terror attacks really growing more frequent? We've brought in Dan Byman, a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He's in our studios. Good morning.

DANIEL BYMAN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do these attacks really take place more often than in the past?

BYMAN: It's unclear that the attacks take place more often, but what is clear is we pay a lot more attention to them. In the 1970s for example, there were between 60 and 70 terrorist incidents in the United States every year on average.

INSKEEP: More than one a week.

BYMAN: Absolutely, there were airplane hijackings in the '70s that were happening sometimes, again, more than one a week. In Europe in the '80s, we saw massive terrorism - Provisional IRA, left-wing groups. We also saw massive attacks on airplanes - Air India going from Canada to the U.K. - Lockerbie, of course. So terrorism is nothing new. Lots of terrorist attacks are nothing new, but we pay a lot more attention to them today.

INSKEEP: We think about them differently - why? - because of 9/11, because of ISIS, what?

BYMAN: 9/11 is a big part of it. So you had an attack that was off the charts. And understandably, now when people think of terrorism, they're thinking of 9/11 as opposed to a bomb exploding in a bank by a left wing group in the middle of the night. But also, terrorism has become part of the political process. We evaluate candidates based on whether they're tough or not on terrorism. And no one thinks of Ronald Reagan on that score with Lockerbie. But we think of presidents Bush and Obama and future presidents in that way.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask - we've heard debates about immigration. We're about to hear the story of a man who thinks he was wrongfully taken - taken into custody in France. How much has this affected our policy debate, what might be described as an overlarge focus on terrorism?

BYMAN: It's been a tremendous change. What we see is that the media and really all forms of media engage in discussions on terrorism on a regular basis. Candidates, as I mentioned, are graded. And of course we look at different communities in the United States often through a terrorism lens. So of course, Muslim Americans have been the subject of tremendous vitriol in this regard, and it's far worse in Europe.

INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask you, though, because somebody is surely listening and thinking, well, whether it's getting worse or better, people are being killed. Terrible things are happening. Terrible groups are operating. How should we measure the risk in a proper way?

BYMAN: Terrible things are happening, and people are being killed. But we need to keep this in perspective. We need to recognize that although terrorism is real, there are many other dangers out there. And terrorism should not be the only driver or necessarily the leading driver of our foreign policy and especially of our domestic politics.

INSKEEP: Do terrorists win if they get more attention than the scale of their attacks would call for?

BYMAN: Absolutely - by creating fear, we enable them to gain victory.

INSKEEP: OK. Daniel Byman, thanks for coming by.

BYMAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a professor at Georgetown University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.