Terrorism is overblown? You bet it is

Weeki Wachee Springs--Potential Terrorist Target

Is the threat of terrorism overblown? Could it be? I am still studying the American public’s answers to that question, but to scholars who study it, there is little doubt. The infinitesimal odds of dying in a terrorist attack are rarely made clear to many Americans, but if they were they could cast some doubt on the usefulness of the Department of Homeland Security (national security through colour code), the truthiness of political discourse and how threatening al-Qaeda actually is. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them is clear and sensible thought for a world of headless chickens.

John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University, who also wrote “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons” for the journal International Security a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, begins his book by throwing out empty rhetoric about “the age of terror” in which we live and ushers in some perspective. Statistically, including 9/11, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s is similar to the number killed by deer or allergies to peanuts. One is more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist, and yet our reactions to the one successful terrorist attack on American soil have been so absurd that after invading two countries and killing hundreds of thousands, the American public still fears another surprise attack.

This attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, perhaps from the ever-present boogeymen of Iran or North Korea. But as Mueller points out in Foreign Policy (and in Overblown), terrorists’ exploding nuclear weapons all over the place is almost impossible. We have been afraid of them for more than 60 years, and since then not one has gone off accidentally, been sold to a terrorist or found its way to Manhattan. Chemical and biological weapons, too, fail the terrorist test: they are simply too difficult to develop and wield with any effectiveness. And why would they? The 9/11 hijackers had no WMDs because they did not need them.

And yet, the panic over nuclear or WMD terrorism, or any other kind, was high for years following 9/11. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected somehow to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

The media have contributed generously to the terror potluck. Politicians and bureaucrats have an incentive to issue vague warnings from time to time in case there is an attack and they are accused of not preventing it. In Mueller’s words, “[s]ince 9/11 the American public has been treated to seemingly endless yammering in the media about terrorism. Politicians and bureaucrats may feel that, given the public concern on the issue, they will lose support if they appear insensitively to be downplaying the dangers of terrorism.” It is as if each news program, each politician, each government spokesperson baits his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. But our enemies are not the only ones who have suffered at our hands.

9/11 has cost money. Nearly $10b per year is spent on airport security, not including Homeland Security’s $50b budget. A sense of urgency to protect every possible terrorist target has meant a big increase in government spending with the usual billion dollar riders tacked on to each bill. (Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, in the photo above, was happy to receive funding for preventive counterterrorism. Fortunately, his water park has not yet been a victim.) Visa restrictions have kept out scientists, engineers and businesspeople who could have helped the US economy. But never mind those costs: they are for security. No price is too high for a colour-coded warning system. The true costs of 9/11 are in the wars that would not have been politically possible without it. Hundreds of billions will have been spent on Afghanistan and at least three trillion will have gone toward Iraq after it is all over. Surely if those wars have saved lives and prevented terrorism, they are good wars. But all accounts say they have not.

9/11 has cost lives. One estimate is that more than 1000 people died between September 11 and December 31 of 2001 after they canceled planned trips by plane and took their cars instead. Another study found that in the same time period, 17% of Americans outside New York continued suffering shell shock. More obviously are the two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, which have claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis in the name of nebulous ideals, false security warnings and failed intelligence.

Professor Mueller provides refreshing views not only of the present unwarranted panic but of historically parallel ones too. Pearl Harbour was described by observers at the time as catastrophic, devastating, crushing, “the greatest military and naval disaster in our nation’s history”. More realistically, however, it was an inconvenience. A colossal overreaction ensued in which a hundred thousand Americans were killed for the loss of 2403 in the initial attack. 120,000 Japanese people, two-thirds of them American citizens, were sent to detention camps without trial. Much more historical analysis provided in Overblown describes additional speculative fears and their consequences that, with hindsight, were exceedingly foolish.

John Mueller is part of a line of thinkers, from sociologists and other scholars to Michael Moore and George Carlin, who explain the destructive effects of the fact that, in the latter’s words, Americans panic easily. From Afghanistan and Iraq to freedom at home, this panic has for years led to the trading of lives and liberties for the illusion of security. Professor Mueller does not touch on the less obvious effects of 9/11 that we are dealing with to this day. For instance, while I believe the Iraq War would not have happened without 9/11, I also believe it is the continued fear of al-Qaeda and militant Islam and the Middle East and anyone who wears a turban that is pushing some Americans toward war with Iran. The mentality seems to be, “You think 9/11 was bad? When Iran gets a nuclear weapon…” Such a belief is only speculation, though. Overblown offers a much-needed clearer-headed response to terrorism than to try to blow it up.

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7 Responses to “Terrorism is overblown? You bet it is”

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  3. Tony Blair is the world’s greatest threat to rational thinking « The Menso Guide to War, Conflict and World Issues Says:

    […] fear that radical Islamists will acquire nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Having learned how unlikely that is from people who think and research for a living rather than speak, we can largely discard that […]

  4. Terrorism and airport security « The Rule of Freedom Says:

    […] guns have prevented 9/11? No bombs or guns were involved. (Find more on how overblown terrorism is here.) It doesn’t really matter. Your odds of being killed by a terrorist, according to all risk […]

  5. Propaganda « The Rule of Freedom Says:

    […] is massively overblown. Everyone is a potential terrorist now. We are programmed to be afraid. How does the use of the […]

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