As terrorist plots against the United States have piled up in recent months, politicians and the news media have sounded the alarm with a riveting message for Americans: Be afraid. Al Qaeda is on the march again, targeting the country from within and without, and your hapless government cannot protect you.
But the politically charged clamor has lumped together disparate cases and obscured the fact that the enemies on American soil in 2009, rather than a single powerful and sophisticated juggernaut, were a scattered, uncoordinated group of amateurs who displayed more fervor than skill. The weapons were old-fashioned guns and explosives ”” in several cases, duds supplied by F.B.I. informants ”” with no trace of the biological or radiological poisons, let alone the nuclear bombs, that have long been the ultimate fear.
And though 2009 brought more domestic plots, and more serious plots, than any recent year, their lethality was relatively modest. Exactly 14 of the approximately 14,000 murders in the United States last year resulted from allegedly jihadist attacks: 13 people shot at Fort Hood in Texas in November and one at a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Ark., in June.
Such statistics would be no comfort, of course, if an attack with mass casualties succeeded some day.