Special Report

Don’t Look Back

Political science professor John Mueller wants us to return to the days when we took terrorist attacks in stride.

By 12.14.06

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Armed with a portfolio of PowerPoint slides, academic John Mueller appeared before an audience at the libertarian Cato Institute on Wednesday to make the case that when it comes to terrorism, Americans have nothing to fear but fear itself.

"Terrorism is a threat, it is a problem and there are bad guys out there, but the scope of the threat has been substantially exaggerated and is basically something we can live with and deal with," Mueller said. Our overzealous response to terrorism, he believes, has cost us more in money and lives than relatively low-frequency, low-impact, terrorist attacks cause in the first place. By spreading fear, we're actually doing the terrorists' job for them, so we need to have a more measured approach to the problem.

The Ohio State University professor has made a name for himself in the past several years by pushing this argument, culminating in his new book: Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

Former Virginia Governor James Gilmore, speaking after Mueller, declared that "This book adds a great deal to the analysis and thinking about terrorism in the world today and specifically in the United States."

Even many supporters of an aggressive response to terrorism would probably agree with Mueller that some of the money spent by the Department of Homeland Security is nothing but government waste, that many of the airport security measures imposed in recent years (such as shoe removal) border on the absurd, and that not all of the 80,000 potential terrorist targets identified by DHS (such as Florida water park Weeki Wachee Springs) are likely to be in al Qaeda's crosshairs.

But Mueller doesn't just take issue with some of the "duck and cover" aspects of the War on Terror. He even takes issue with sensible security precautions, such as having air marshals on airplanes to prevent hijackings, "something that's probably impossible given what happened on the fourth plane on 9/11 -- passengers and crew won't allow it to happen."

However, while the courageous effort of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 may have saved either the Capitol or White House, the passengers themselves would have likely survived had there been an armed air marshal aboard the flight. Also, Mueller's assertion that "passengers and crew won't allow it to happen" undercuts his own thesis, because having an alert citizenry that acts on its suspicions is a direct result of all the warnings about terrorism, and all the measures the government has taken to put the nation on a war footing -- measures that Mueller mocks and dismisses as "security theater." When Richard Reid tried to set off a bomb in his shoe a few months after Sept. 11, he was subdued by passengers and crew members who acted quickly. If people aboard the flight shared Mueller's attitude about the low statistical probabilities of a terrorist attack, perhaps they would have hesitated long enough for Reid to be successful.

Another problem with Mueller is that his reliance on cold statistical analysis doesn't take into account some of the aspects of terrorism that make it such a unique threat.

In his presentation, Mueller asserted that the odds a human being will die in a terrorist attack are 1 in 80,000 -- roughly the same odds as getting killed by an asteroid. Given the tremendous cost in blood and treasure of fighting terrorism, Mueller suggests that we should "absorb" casualties from terrorist attacks, just as we "absorb" over 40,000 auto accident-related deaths each year.

Even if the nation were to accept Mueller's ghoulish casualty calculus, no mathematician can attach a number to the intangible damage caused by attacks on such prominent symbols of American economic and military might as the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Clearly, the damage caused to the nation was greater than the tragic loss of life by itself.

Were it not for the brave actions of the passengers onboard United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, we may have also been watching video of smoke rising from the rubble that once was the dome of the Capitol. How would America be viewed by its allies and enemies were we simply to shrug off such an attack and treat it as a simple police matter?

Mueller acts as if his approach to terrorism is novel, but in fact it is very representative of the approach to terrorism we had prior to Sept. 11, and it failed us gravely. An informal chronology available on the State Department website lists "significant terrorist incidents" since 1961, when the first U.S. aircraft was hijacked. In the 1960s, there were four incidents, but the number quadrupled to 16 during the 1970s, more than doubled to 36 in the 1980s and more than doubled again to 75 during the 1990s. That's a 19-fold increase in total. Not only did the frequency of significant attacks increase, but the sophistication improved dramatically. In 1961 a lone gunman hijacked an airplane; on Sept. 11, 19 hijackers almost simultaneously hijacked four airplanes and used them as missiles to kill 3,000 people. Mueller said that about the same number of people die in terrorist attacks in a typical year as drown in their bathtubs, but the number of people who die in their bathtubs is relatively static, whereas the threat of terrorism has mushroomed over time, largely because from its early days we treated it as a manageable threat that could be dealt with through international policing -- which is precisely what Mueller suggests we do now.

Mueller argued that Ronald Reagan didn't suffer politically when he pulled U.S. troops out of Lebanon in the wake of the 1983 Marine barracks bombing that killed 242 Americans. The attack was "sort of accepted in stride," Mueller said. Reagan may not have suffered politically, but history should judge the decision as the biggest mistake of his presidency, because it sent the message to terrorists that they could attack us and we wouldn't have the appetite to respond.

In a 1996 fatwa, Osama bin Laden wrote:

Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place on 1983 AD (1403 A.H). You were turned into scattered pits and pieces at that time; 241 mainly marines solders were killed. And where was this courage of yours when two explosions made you to leave Aden in less than twenty four hours!

One of the problems President Bush faces in fighting terrorism is that he'll never get credit for thwarting attacks that never materialize, but he'll get all the blame for the visible costs of responding to terrorism. With more than five years having passed without an attack and with the human and financial cost of fighting terrorism growing each day, it's easy to see how Mueller's arguments would appeal to war-weary Americans. But whether or not someone supports the Iraq War or all of Bush's anti-terror strategy, it's important that Americans agree to disagree with Mueller. Should we go back to viewing terrorism as a mere "nuisance," as John Kerry once put it, the threat will only continue to grow exponentially.

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About the Author

Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein