John Mueller suspects he might have become cable news programs’ go-to foil on terrorism. The author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (Free Press, 2006) thinks America has overreacted. The greatly exaggerated threat of terrorism, he says, has cost the country far more than terrorist attacks ever did.
Watching his Sept. 12, 2006, appearance on Fox & Friends is unintentionally hilarious. Mueller calmly and politely asks the hosts to at least consider his thesis. But filled with alarm and urgency, they appear bewildered and exasperated. They speak to Mueller as if he is from another planet and cannot be reasoned with.
That reaction is one measure of the contagion of alarmism. Mueller’s book is filled with statistics meant to put terrorism in context. For example, international terrorism annually causes the same number of deaths as drowning in bathtubs or bee stings. It would take a repeat of Sept. 11 every month of the year to make flying as dangerous as driving. Over a lifetime, the chance of being killed by a terrorist is about the same as being struck by a meteor. Mueller’s conclusions: An American’s risk of dying at the hands of a terrorist is microscopic. The likelihood of another Sept. 11-style attack is nearly nil because it would lack the element of surprise. America can easily absorb the damage from most conceivable attacks. And the suggestion that al Qaeda poses an existential threat to the United States is ridiculous. Mueller’s statistics and conclusions are jarring only because they so starkly contradict the widely disseminated and broadly accepted image of terrorism as an urgent and all-encompassing threat.
American reaction to two failed attacks in Britain in June further illustrates our national hysteria. British police found and defused two car bombs before they could be detonated, and two would-be bombers rammed their car into a terminal at Glasgow Airport. Even though no bystanders were hurt and British authorities labeled both episodes failures, the response on American cable television and Capitol Hill was frenzied, frequently emphasizing how many people could have been killed. “The discovery of a deadly car bomb in London today is another harsh reminder that we are in a war against an enemy that will target us anywhere and everywhere,” read an e-mailed statement from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn. “Terrorism is not just a threat. It is a reality, and we must confront and defeat it.” The bombs that never detonated were “deadly.” Terrorists are “anywhere and everywhere.” Even those who believe it is a threat are understating; it’s “more than a threat.”
Mueller, an Ohio State University political science professor, is more analytical than shrill. Politicians are being politicians, and security businesses are being security businesses, he says. “It’s just like selling insurance – you say, ‘Your house could burn down.’ You don’t have an incentive to say, ‘Your house will never burn down.’ And you’re not lying,” he says. Social science research suggests that humans tend to glom onto the most alarmist perspective even if they are told how unlikely it is, he adds. We inflate the danger of things we don’t control and exaggerate the risk of spectacular events while downplaying the likelihood of common ones. We are more afraid of terrorism than car accidents or street crime, even though the latter are far more common. Statistical outliers like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are viewed not as anomalies, but as harbingers of what’s to come.
Sept. 11 was so dramatic and scary that even suggesting that some of the resulting fear is unjustified seems blasphemous. Indeed, the release in July of a new National Intelligence Estimate and its reports of a resurgent al Qaeda served to renew and stoke those fears. But the point is not that terrorists don’t exist, or that terrorist attacks won’t happen. It’s that the pervasive alarm about terrorism obscures the most important question the nation must grapple with: “What level of protection is enough?” Seeking 100 percent security is quixotic. There always will be some risk, but how much can we live with?
This question remains unanswered because the political climate created by alarmists, however well-intentioned, prevents it from being raised. Those who try are quickly punished. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said in 2004 that the goal should be to reduce terrorism to the level of organized crime – a nuisance but not “the focus of our lives.” The Bush campaign immediately pounced, calling Kerry “unfit to lead,” and he never used such rhetoric again.
More post tipping point stuff for you. The question after this is, “how are we going to dismantle the over-the-top systems once everyone has calmed down?” In other words, how are ID cards, and all the surveillance going to be dispensed with?
THAT is the question.