Americans are terrified. We’re seeing Islamic terrorists under our beds and can’t sleep at night.

Blame the cable TV news hysterics; blame the presidential candidates with their hair on fire; blame our short attention spans And, of course, blame the terrorists, who are succeeding in what they set out to do.

A New York Times poll released Friday finds Americans are more fearful about a terrorist attack than at any time since the days after Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 80 percent now say another terrorist attack is likely in the next few months.

The fear-mongers in politics and media can thank Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the odd couple who shot up a holiday party in San Bernardino. Thank also their comrades-in-arms in Paris, who brought guns, bombs and mayhem to restaurants, a soccer game and a rock concert a few weeks before.

And blame their brothers in the ruins of Syria, who behead those whose beliefs they disapprove of with Medieval flair and post the video online with 21st century efficiency; who recruit would-be terrorists on Facebook and send out battle orders, according to some accounts, using PlayStation 4.

They have accomplished exactly what they set out to do: scare the pants off of us.

The second goal in the terrorists’ playbook is to inspire the enemy to overreact. Getting America to invade a Muslim country served their purposes after 9/11, elevating al-Qaida and the Taliban to the position of leaders of Islam against the infidel armies.

Better yet, in the terrorists’ eyes, get Americans to turn on each other, to forget the principles and unity that are our greatest strengths. The San Bernardino attacks have turned Christians against Muslims, feeding the clash-of-civilizations narrative that appeals to radicals on both sides.

Donald Trump can thank the terrorists for generating the fear that has given his campaign a big boost. The terrorists can thank Trump for ramping up the panic, for making half the country fear Muslims while the other half fears Trump.

Trump’s call to stop all Muslims from entering the U.S. was just the latest in a long string of outrageous comments that were supposed to sink his candidacy. Instead, it strengthened his lead over other GOP presidential contenders. More than 40 percent of Republican primary voters say strong leadership is the most important quality in a candidate, the Times poll found, well ahead of honesty, empathy, experience or electability. Those voters strongly favor Trump.

From a distance, the reactions seem a bit strange.

The San Bernardino massacre, sadly, isn’t that unusual. America has seen hundreds of mass shootings this year and handled them without being panicked into actions as modest as closing the gun show loophole. Between Colorado Springs and San Bernardino, assault weapons were used to gun down 17 people in a week. Yet support for a ban on assault weapons is 19 points lower than after Rep. Gabby Giffords was wounded in a mass shooting in Tucson five years ago, the Times poll found.
San Bernardino marked a “new phase” in the terror threat, officials said, because there were two shooters, not just a lone demented gunman, and because they were “self-radicalized” individuals operating independently of a larger network.

With its short attention span, America seems to have forgotten all the talk after 9/11 about “sleeper cells” waiting to pounce and Dick Cheney’s promises of a “long war” against Islamist radicals. We also seem to have forgotten the Marathon bombings, carried out by two self-radicalized Americans. The Tsarnaev brothers didn’t kill as many as Malik and Farook, but they wounded a lot more, and their attack, carried out on live TV at a major event, was more spectacular and more terrifying. Why is the country more scared now than it was during those fraught days when the Marathon suspects were still at large?

Those who aren’t terrorized by the Muslims are frightened by Donald Trump. In the Times poll, 64 percent said they were concerned or scared over what he might do as president.

So where do we go from here? How do we tame our fears?

After 9/11 and after the Marathon bombings, people found comfort in prayer and patriotism. We mourn the victims we never knew and pile up flowers where they fell. We buck each other up with slogans like “Boston Strong.” At our best, we let grief unite rather than divide us.

Then we move on. The blessing of a short attention span is there is always another “breaking news” flash to distract us, another campaign kerfuffle to shake up the polls. The holiday season is here, presenting the best opportunity to put politics aside, lift the gloom and focus on the good.

Be not afraid. This, too, shall pass.

Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts. He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co., and follow him @HolmesAndCo.