Upon discovering that Weeki Wachee Springs, his Florida roadside water park, had been included on the Department of Homeland Security's list of over 80,000 potential terrorist targets, its marketing and promotion manager, John Athanason, turned reflective. "I can't imagine bin Laden trying to blow up the mermaids," he mused, "but with terrorists, who knows what they're thinking. I don't want to think like a terrorist, but what if the terrorists try to poison the water at Weeki Wachee Springs?"
Whatever his imaginings, however, he went on to report that his enterprise had quickly and creatively risen to the occasion -- or seized the opportunity. They were working to get a chunk of the counterterrorism funds allocated to the region by the well-endowed, anxiety-provoking, ever-watchful Department of Homeland Security.
Which is the greater threat: terrorism, or our reaction against it? The Weeki Wachee experience illustrates the problem. A threat that is real but likely to prove to be of limited scope has been massively, perhaps even fancifully, inflated to produce widespread and unjustified anxiety. This process has then led to wasteful, even self-parodic expenditures and policy overreactions, ones that not only very often do more harm and cost more money than anything the terrorists have accomplished, but play into their hands.
The way terrorism anxiety has come to envelop the nation is also illustrated by a casual exchange on television's 60 Minutes. In an interview, filmmaker-provocateur Michael Moore happened to remark, "The chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small," and his interviewer, Bob Simon, promptly admonished, "But no one sees the world like that." Remarkably, both statements are true -- the first only a bit more so than the second. It is the thesis of this book that our reaction against terrorism has caused more harm than the threat warrants -- not just to civil liberties, not just to the economy, but even to human lives. And our reaction has often helped the terrorists more than it has hurt them. It is the reactive consequences stemming from Simon's perspective -- or from what journalist Mark Bowden has characterized as "housewives in Iowa . . . watching TV afraid that al-Qaeda's going to charge in their front door" -- that generate one of the chief problems presented by terrorism.
International terrorism generally kills a few hundred people a year worldwide -- not much more, usually, than the number who drown yearly in bathtubs in the United States. Americans worry intensely about "another 9/11," but if one of these were to occur every three months for the next five years, the chance of being killed in one of them is 0.02 percent. Astronomer Alan Harris has calculated that at present rates, the lifetime probability that a resident of the globe will die at the hands of international terrorists is 1 in 80,000, about the same likelihood that one would die over the same interval from the impact on the earth of an especially ill-directed asteroid or comet.
But such numbers are almost never discussed: Moore's outburst is exceedingly rare. Instead, most Americans seem to have developed a false sense of insecurity about terrorism. Thus, since 9/11, over a period in which there have been no international terror attacks whatever in the United States and in which an individual's chances of being killed by a terrorist have remained microscopic even if one -- or many -- did occur, nearly half of the population has continually expressed worry that they or a member of their family will become a victim of terrorism, as Figure 1 shows. Moreover, when asked if they consider another terrorist attack likely in the United States within the next several months, fewer than 10 percent of Americans usually respond with what has proven to be the correct answer: "Not at all likely." Yet, this group has not notably increased in size despite continual confirmation of its prescience.
That the costs of terrorism chiefly arise from fear and from overwrought responses holds even for the tragic events of September 11, 2001, which constituted by far the most destructive set of terrorist acts in history and resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people. The economic costs of reaction have been much higher than those inflicted by the terrorists even in that record-shattering episode, and considerably more than 3,000 Americans have died since 9/11 because, out of fear, they drove in cars rather than flew in airplanes, or because they were swept into wars made politically possible by the terrorist events.
Moreover, as terrorist kingpin and devil du jour Osama bin Laden has gleefully noted, fear, alarmism, and overreaction suit the terrorists' agenda just fine because they create the damaging consequences the terrorists seek but are unable to perpetrate on their own. As he put it mockingly in a videotaped message in 2004, it is "easy for us to provoke and bait. . . . All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin . . . to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses." His policy, he extravagantly believes, is one of "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy," and it is one that depends on overreaction by the target: he triumphally points to the fact that the 9/11 terrorist attacks cost al-Qaeda $500,000, while the attack and its aftermath inflicted, he claims, a cost of more than $500 billion on the United States. Shortly after 9/11, he crowed, "America is full of fear from its north to its south, from its west ot its east. Thank God for that."
PRESENTING AN UNCONVENTIONAL CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
In exploring these issues, this book develops three themes, in this order: (1) terrorism's threat, while real, has been much overblown, something that aids terrorist aims; (2) this process is a familiar one since, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that many international threats have been considerably inflated in the past; and (3) applying these lessons, policy toward terrorism should very substantially focus on reducing the damaging fears and overreactions terrorism so routinely fosters.
In the process, I present a considerable number of propositions that, it seems to me, should be -- but decidedly aren't -- the conventional wisdom on this subject. These propositions are certainly susceptible to debate and to reasoned criticism, but it seems to me that they, rather than their hysterical if attention-grabbing opposites, ought to be the base from which the discussion proceeds. At the very least, they should be part of the policy discussion mix, but they seem almost entirely to have been ignored.
Among these propositions are the following:
- In general, terrorism, particularly international terrorism, doesn't do much damage when considered in almost any reasonable context.
- Although airplanes can still be blown up, another attack like the one on 9/11 is virtually impossible. In 2001 the hijackers had the element of surprise working for them: previous hijackings (including one conducted by Muslim terrorists six months earlier) had mostly been fairly harmless as the perpetrators generally landed the planes somewhere and released, or were forced to release, the passengers. After the 9/11 experience, passengers and crew will fight to prevent a takeover, as was shown on the fourth plane on 9/11.
- The likelihood that any individual American will be killed in a terrorist event is microscopic.
- Just about any damage terrorists are likely to be able to perpetrate can be readily absorbed. To deem the threat an "existential" one is somewhere between extravagant and absurd.
- The capacity of al-Qaeda or of any similar group to do damage in the United States pales in comparison to the capacity other dedicated enemies, particularly international communism, have possessed in the past.
- Lashing out at the terrorist threat is frequently an exercise in self-flagellation because it is usually more expensive than the terrorist attack itself and because it gives the terrorists exactly what they are looking for.
- Chemical and radiological weapons, and most biological ones as well, are incapable of perpetrating mass destruction.
- The likelihood that a terrorist group will be able to master nuclear weapons any time soon is extremely, perhaps vanishingly, small.
- Although murderous and dedicated, al-Qaeda is a very small and very extreme group, and it is unlikely by itself to have the capacity for taking over any significant government.
- Al-Qaeda's terrorist efforts on 9/11 and in the years since have been substantially counterproductive.
- Although additional terrorist attacks in the United States certainly remain possible, an entirely plausible explanation for the fact that there have been none since 2001 is that there is no significant international terrorist presence within the country.
- Policies that continually, or even occasionally, focus entirely on worst-case scenarios (or worst-case fantasies) are unwise and can be exceedingly wasteful.
- In fact, much, probably most of the money and effort expended on counterterrorism since 2001 (and before, for that matter) has been wasted.
- Seeking to protect all potential targets against terrorist attack is impossible and foolish. In fact, just about anything is a potential target.
- Terrorism should be treated essentially as a criminal problem calling mainly for the application of policing methods, particularly in the international sphere, not military ones.
- Because terrorism probably presents only a rather limited threat, a viable policy approach might center around creating the potential to absorb its direct effects and to mitigate its longer range consequences while continuing to support international policing efforts, particularly overseas.
THE ROLE OF THE TERRORISM INDUSTRY
One reason these propositions have gone almost entirely unconsidered is that the fears and anxieties created by the 9/11 experience have been so deftly orchestrated and overblown by members of the terrorism industry: politicians, experts, the media, academics, the bureaucracy, and risk entrepreneurs who profit in one way or another by inflating the threat international terrorism is likely to present. For example, in 2003, while Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge was bravely declaring that "America is a country that will not be bent by terror" or "broken by fear," General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was ominously suggesting that if terrorists were able to engineer an event that managed to kill 10,000 Americans, they would successfully "do away with our way of life."
The sudden deaths of that many Americans -- although representing fewer than 0.004 percent of the population -- would indeed be horrifying and tragic, the greatest one-day disaster the country has suffered since the Civil War. But the United States is hardly likely to be toppled by dramatic acts of terrorist destruction, even extreme ones. The country can readily absorb considerable damage if necessary, and it has outlasted far more potent threats in the past. To suggest otherwise is to express contempt for America's capacity to deal with adversity.
The only way terrorist acts could conceivably "do away with our way of life" would be if, bent and broken, we did it to ourselves in reaction. As broadcaster Edward R. Murrow put it in a different context, "No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices." The process would presumably involve repealing the Bill of Rights, boarding up churches, closing down newspapers and media outlets, burning books, abandoning English for North Korean, and refusing evermore to consume hamburgers.
As it is now, terrorism policy constantly seeks to enhance this (rather unlikely) possibility by stoking fear and by engaging in costly, terrorist-encouraging overreaction. For example, the hastily assembled and massively funded Department of Homeland Security officially intones on the first page of its defining manifesto, "Today's terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon." This warning may be true in some sense, of course (depending on how "virtually" is defined), but it is also fatuous and misleading. "Telling Kansan truck drivers to prepare for nuclear terrorism is like telling bullfighters to watch out for lightning. It should not be their primary concern," aptly notes analyst Benjamin Friedman. "For questionable gains in preparedness, we spread paranoia" and facilitate the bureaucratically and politically appealing notion that "if the threat is everywhere, you must spend everywhere," while developing and perpetrating the myth, or at least the impression, that the terrorists are omnipotent and omnipresent.
The department has also urged people to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting so they can (almost certainly inadequately) seal off their homes in the wildly unlikely event that a significant chemical or biological attack happened to transpire in their neighborhood. Meanwhile, although it has yet to uncover a single true terrorist cell in the United States, the FBI has warned the citizenry, apparently seriously, to be wary of people bearing almanacs -- which, they helpfully explain, contain information of great value to your average diabolical terrorist, such as the location of bridges.
AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH TO TERRORISM
By contrast, a sensible approach to terrorism would support international policing while seeking to reduce terrorism's principal costs -- fear, anxiety, and overreaction -- not to aggravate them. In the process it would stress that some degree of risk is an inevitable fact of life, that the country can, however grimly, absorb just about any damage terrorism can inflict (it now "absorbs" 40,000 traffic deaths per year, almost all of which could be prevented by imposing a thirteen-mile-per-hour speed limit), and that seeking to protect every imaginable terrorist target (such as Weeki Wachee Springs) is impossible and absurd.
Moreover, there are important economic benefits to such a policy. Effectively it can encourage people to get on airplanes and spend money while their terrified counterparts cower at home, decorate their cars with flag decals, and loudly, defiantly, and pointlessly bellow anthems about "the Home of the Brave." One day we might even begin to consider a heretical possibility, one that may or may not be true but that fits the evidence gathered so far: that the massive Homeland Security apparatus in the United States is persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend against an internal enemy that scarcely exists.
In my view, then, the focus should be on treating terrorism as a criminal activity of rather limited importance and on reducing anxieties and avoiding policy overreaction. These tasks, however, may be exceedingly difficult because fears, once embraced, are not all that susceptible to rational analysis and because the terrorism industry will likely continue assiduously to cultivate those fears.
LESSONS OVERLEARNED: THE PERSISTENCE OF EXAGGERATION AND OVERREACTION
"At the summit of foreign policy," political scientist Warner Schilling once observed, "one always finds simplicity and spook." This book deals with the results of that proposition as it pertains to American foreign policy over the past several decades: the tendency to exaggerate foreign threats and then, partly in consequence, to overreact to them. It then applies that experience to the current era, specifically to the extravagant, sometimes even hysterical fears international terrorism has fostered and to the expensive and sometimes counterproductive policies those fears have inspired. Analyzed are responses to Pearl Harbor (an event often compared to 9/11), anxieties over the threat presented by domestic and foreign communism, fears about the imminence of thermonuclear war, apprehensions over challenges posed by various "rogue states," most of which eventually faded into insignificance (remember Castro?), absurd insecurities engendered by the Iran hostage crisis and the Japanese economic challenge, and concerns about "ethnic warfare" that was supposed to engulf the world.
In all this, I do not wish to suggest that all fears are unjustified or that international threats are never underestimated. In fact, I suspect that some of the tendency to overestimate threats in the period after World War II derives from the fact that the dire threat presented by Adolf Hitler's Germany had been underappreciated in the period before it. This underestimate, however, was premised in part and in turn on an overestimate: the exaggerated supposition that the next major war would obviously lead to human annihilation, an assumption that led to the logical, but profoundly misguided, conclusion that Hitler could not possibly be willing to risk, much less start, such a war. The postwar proclivity toward exaggeration and overreaction may also stem in part from the traumatic prewar experience with Japan, when there was a tendency to underestimate its capacity and, in particular, its willingness to take risks. Nor do I wish to argue that every overreaction is wasteful or foolish to the same degree; historical comparisons suggest that the inflation of the terrorist threat may be unusually excessive.
Political scientist Robert Jervis has suggested that "those who remember the past are condemned to making the opposite mistakes." It is a central burden of this book that the prewar experience with Hitler and with Japan may have been too well remembered and that, despite the alarmism of prominent members of the terrorism industry, today's tiny bands of international terrorists hardly present a Hitlerian threat. Accordingly, our present anxieties are much inflated, and it is time to think again.
Judge Richard Posner notes that "when a nation is surprised and hurt there is a danger that it will overreact," but, he continues, "it is only with the benefit of hindsight that a reaction can be separated into its proper and excess layers." It will be seen in this book that unpleasant surprises very frequently, though not always, lead to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise. First, the surprise is treated not as an aberration, but as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous and threatening, will remain so, and will become worse -- an exercise that might be called "massive extrapolation." Second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat without a great deal of thought about alternative policies, including and especially ones that might advocate simply letting it be.
Posner is certainly correct to argue that we can be sure only in hindsight about whether a reaction has been excessive, but very frequently that retrospective evaluation is never made. For example, now that we know how the cold war came out, it seems a reasonable, and potentially profitable, exercise to consider whether the fears, anxieties, reactions, and expenditures the Soviet challenge inspired were, in fact, wise and sensible, or perhaps even necessary. Moreover, even taking into consideration the emotions of the time and the limitations of knowledge and intelligence information that policymakers inevitably labor under, data interpretations and policy options that should at least have occurred to responsible decision makers at the time -- if only to be rejected for one reason or another -- often never percolated into their consciousness at all. In the case of terrorism, for instance, I just presented a substantial list of plausible interpretations and options that have been almost entirely ignored in the extensive public discussion on (or endless yammering about) terrorism that has taken place since September 11, 2001. Thus, simplicity and spook very frequently have prevailed in the past, and they seem to be doing so now.
Accordingly, this book liberally and unapologetically applies hindsight to evaluate reactions to such surprises as Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, Sputnik, hostage taking in the Middle East, and the eruption of ethnic conflict in Europe. Not all threats that could potentially have been seized upon have evoked anxiety and overreaction. For example, the American public and its leaders have remained remarkably calm about the potential damage that could be inflicted by the planet's intersection with large meteors or comets, and (perhaps more pertinently) they do not seem to be exercised all that much by advertised dangers stemming from global warming or genetically modified food. But it does appear that every foreign policy threat in the past several decades that has come to be accepted as significant has then eventually been unwisely exaggerated.
It does not automatically and necessarily follow, of course, that because foreign policy threats have been inflated in the past, we are doing so now. However, this book finds a significant pattern of overextrapolation and overreaction, not to mention simplicity and spook, that has often led to policies that were unwise, costly, unnecessary, and sometimes massively counterproductive. And we seem to be at it yet again, perhaps now more than ever.
Copyright © 2006 John Mueller