10 tips for surviving the age of terrorism

Story highlights

  • Aaron David Miller: Despite worldwide travel alert, terror threat needs to be put in perspective
  • Staying calm is key, Miller says
  • Odds of becoming a victim of terrorism are small, he says

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations, is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Nobody ever said life would be easy. On Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert, citing threats from groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram.

But that doesn't mean you have to live your life on the knife's edge, somehow persuaded that a terrorist's bomb or bullet has your name on it.
Aaron David Miller
Here are 10 common-sense tips for coping with the fears and uncertainties in the wake of the jihadist terror attacks in Paris and Mali:
    1. Sixty-three percent of terror attacks in the world last year occurred in six countries: Syria, Iraq, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Just keep this in mind when you make your travel plans.
    2. As the Council on Foreign Relations' Micah Zenko has noted, terrorist-related deaths grew by more than 4,000% from 2002 and by 148% from 2010 to 2014. But they constitute a small percentage of worldwide violence, roughly 7%. Zenko further argues: Compare the 32,727 terrorist fatalities to the estimated 377,000 people who were killed, collectively, in interpersonal violence, gang violence or economically motivated crimes. The odds are greater that you'll be killed by lightning than killed by ISIS.
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    3. Let's not forget that since 9/11 nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: Forty-eight have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including this year's mass killing at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington think tank. The painful and inconvenient truth is that the problems of violent extremism, not to mention random and more ordinary criminal gun violence, are already here.
    4. Our liquid assets -- our two oceans -- and friendly neighbors plus a lot of hard work since 9/11 on the part of both Republican and Democratic administrations have certainly not eliminated the chances of a Paris-style attack, but they have reduced the odds. Last year, the State Department report on terrorism noted that not a single American was killed in a terror attack within the United States. Rather, as has been consistent with previous years, Americans die from terrorism when they travel to war zones, or areas marked by violent instability: Of the 24 deaths last year, 10 were in Afghanistan, five in Israel or the Palestinian territories, three in Somalia, four in Syria and one apiece in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
    5. Keep your expectations realistic. It's impossible in a country this large, open and free to expect that we can hermetically seal our borders and prevent all terrorism directed from abroad. That there has not been a single successful terror attack in the United States since 9/11 planned, directed and operationalized by a foreign terror organization is an extraordinary reality. But as with many things in life, we should hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We survived 9/11 and now better understand what to do and how not to overreact.
    6. Protecting our citizens is the most important responsibility of government. But high on the list too must be guarding and preserving American values. Security without the liberty, individual rights, openness, pluralism, freedom of speech, conscience and tolerance that have made America great -- even with all its imperfections -- wouldn't be worth much. Demand that government and politicians respect that balance.
    7. Demand too that government and the political class, even in a presidential year, keep their collective heads. The attacks on 9/11 led to the two longest (and still ongoing) wars in U.S. history, and in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency the U.S. invasion triggered partly contributed to the rise of ISIS -- the very problem we face now. It's critical that even as we seek to use the recent terror attacks to mobilize the international community, regional allies and escalate our own anti-ISIS campaign that we don't play into the jihadis' hands. We want to try to avoid deploying massive ground forces, incurring lots of collateral civilian casualties, turning the war against terror into a clash of civilizations and demonizing Muslims, Arabs and particularly, innocent and already traumatized refugees. Let's be tough against terror but smart, too.
    8. Sadly there's no national service in this country. But at times like these instead of being anxious and fearful, it might be more useful to channel those emotions into more useful engagement. Clearly without overdoing it, we could all be more aware and alert with regard to security, along the lines of New York City's "see something, say something" campaign. But more than that, America isn't an island. When events such as Paris occur -- even while terribly tragic -- they should prompt us to learn more about the world of which the United States is a part. The fight against this kind of terror is the long war, and we should all know more about the organizations, region and circumstances that produce it.
    9. The end of the world isn't coming. In fact, though it seems like the world is on fire, it's actually a less dangerous place than it was in 1945. We don't have world wars any longer; mass killings and conflicts still abound but no longer on the scale or order of Rwanda, Cambodia or the Holocaust. Ebola tragically killed 11,000, but the 1918-1919 Spanish flu killed 50 million, and unlike Ebola, it was an airborne virus. The 2008 economic collapse was the Great Recession, not the Great Depression, largely because we were able to develop institutions and mechanisms to deal with the consequences. None of this good news is cause for complacency in the fight against jihadis. But the perspective that time affords and the challenges we've overcome should help us keep our heads and not overreact.
    10. The best thing each of us can do now is to stay calm, cool, keep our feet on the ground and our heads out of the clouds. Terror's goal is to deny peace of mind, make normal routines abnormal, if not impossible, and force us to react only with our emotions, not with our heads. Frankly, for the long war ahead we'll need both to guarantee our security and our values, too. I for one believe we'll get through this and over time, diminish the threat, even win that long war. But we all need to believe it, too, and even if we don't, we need to act like we do.
    Note: An earlier version of this article said that the odds are "infinitely greater" that you'll be struck by lightning than that you'll be killed by a terrorist attack. A 2011 article suggested that the chance of being killed by lightning was four times as great as the likelihood of being killed by a terror attack in the U.S.