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Have We Been Changed by a Year of Terrorism? Here's What the Experts Say

Americans’ response to terrorism on home soil is predictable — a cycle foreign policy experts say has borne out time and again.

Americans’ response to terrorism on home soil is predictable — a cycle foreign policy experts say has borne out time and again.

First, there is shock, then fear, anger and, eventually, complacency as the electorate settles into a vague sense of acceptance and government officials offer assurances that the perpetrators have been caught and the root causes pursued and stamped out, foreign policy experts say.

It is a narrative that played out in the aftermath of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and, will likely take the same course in the aftermath of the deadly shooting massacre by a radicalized couple in San Bernardino, California.

Americans “sort of know we aren’t immune,” but we aren’t overwhelmed by those feelings, said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and national security specialist at the Brookings Institution, told NBC News.

“I don’t see people living their lives differently, or losing a whole lot of sleep...,” he said. “But I do sense a somewhat greater level of underlying anxiety. We’ll deal with it. We’re pretty tough as a people.”

Despite a year in which Americans faced a constant barrage of news about high-profile terrorist attacks both at home and abroad, the electorate has not changed in a significant way, said David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and author of "National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear."

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“In my view, recent terror attacks have not changed us in a fundamental way,” said Rothkopf, who is also editor of Foreign Policy Group, a collection of foreign policy publications. “Rather they have led to revival of many of the fears that have circulated every time there has been a major terror attack since 9/11. Largely, this is because the media and political leaders — many bent on using the attacks to benefit their own careers — have exploited and emphasized the attacks and overstated the risks associated with terror.”

Carnage in such places as Syria, where hundreds of thousands are fleeing violence in their war-torn nation, and Paris, where 130 people died in coordinated terrorist attacks across the city, stir fears of a “what if” nature and nationalistic sentiment. More than half of America's governors expressed some degree of opposition to the Obama administration's plans to relocate thousands of Syrian refugees to their states.

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Congress became embroiled in the controversial efforts to block or curtail benefits for Syrian refugees— an effort which ultimately failed. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to block Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from travelling to the U.S. — while widely panned — resonated with some voters and his poll numbers have remained high.

This reaction isn’t new.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was some anti-Muslim backlash and a larger and pervading sentiment of pulling together as a nation to defeat terrorism and a push by both Congress and then-President George W. Bush’s administration to pursue those who dared target the homeland.

The confluence of those things helped lead us into protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Obama came into office determined not only to wind down the American role in wars in the Middle East, but to redefine how the U.S. would try to prevent terrorism. The president continued to target terrorists, constantly using drones to kill al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a kind of secret war that angered many liberals who felt Obama was operating outside of his constitutional authority. The 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was something the president took pride in and was featured prominently in his 2012 reelection campaign.

At the same time, Obama made a number of changes in how America discussed and fought terrorism.

The “war on terror,” a phrase constantly invoked by the Bush administration, was jettisoned by Obama’s team. Bush’s presidency was in some ways defined by Sept. 11 and America’s response to it, while Obama spent his first three years largely focusing on health care and other domestic policy issues.

The U.S withdrew nearly all forces from Iraq and most from Afghanistan, confident that while those governments may not have become strong democracies, they would not become terrorist havens. The administration, amid the Arab Spring, embraced those in Syria, Egypt and other countries who wanted more democratic governments.

During the 2012 campaign, Obama referred to al Qaeda as “decimated.”

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama told the New Yorker in January 2014, when asked about the rise of some new Islamic fundamentalist groups. “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”

Nine months later, with ISIS having taken huge swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, Obama was delivering a speech detailing America’s plans to fight the group and trying to distance himself from the “jayvee” remark.

For the last year, the Obama administration has been forced to re-escalate the fight about terrorism it had been trying to downplay.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter, said bluntly, “we’re at war,” after the ISIS attacks in Paris. The president has been repeatedly giving speeches to reassure Americans after the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

Obama has deployed a small number of troops to fight ISIS and finds himself under criticism from Republicans and even some Democrats for not using Bush-style rhetoric in combatting terrorism.

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All of this plays into the idea of American exceptionalism as some sort of shield against the realities of the new style of terrorism, said Nina Khrushcheva, dean of the New School's Milano School of International Affairs.

“It’s a slightly delusional idea of Americans thinking it’s not yet about them,” she said adding that Americans also don’t trust the White House to handle the issue.

Americans will remain in this cycle of a predictable and ineffective response to terrorism until the broader electorate changes the way it thinks about the relationship between the U.S. and other nations.

“Unethical is not how you think. Inhuman is not how you think. You are not there yet. You still think in nation state. We protect our border,” she said. “You have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to study those cultures and those people. The world doesn’t want to be like America. They want to stick it to the man. And America is the man.”