Last week, two NYC marketing gurus were collared in Boston after a publicity stunt promoting a television show for The Cartoon Network. Hundreds of “blinking devices” resembling characters from the show Aqua Teen Hunger Force were planted along the highways of several U.S. cities. Some panicky motorists feared the outdoor marketing campaign had the makings of a terrorist attack and dialed 9-1-1. Soon bridges and highways in and around Greater Boston were shut down while a bomb squad detonated one of the cartoon characters.
In his recent book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (Free Press), John Mueller, professor of Political Science at Ohio State University, suggests that the Bush Administration and the media have unduly scared the daylights out of Americans.
Mueller’s contention is hard to refute. Take, for instance, the fact that an individual has the same chance of dying in a terrorist attack as he does getting flattened by an asteroid: about 1 in 80,000. And yet survey after survey shows that Americans are inordinately worried about being murdered by al Qaeda.
Add up the U.S. fatalities in the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror and you come up with roughly 6,500 deaths. Now compare that to the number of Americans who die annually in traffic accidents: about 42,000. So where are the cries to raise the driving age from 16 to 18, to lower speed limits, and to mandate annual driving tests for seniors? Overblown might also describe the American public’s response to the casualties in the Iraq War, though Mueller does not say so. About 3,089 American troops have died in Iraq. About 20 million Soviets died in World War II.
Apples and oranges, you say? Perhaps, but it does put the matter into perspective.
Whether or not the U.S. response to 9/11 (I am thinking about the invasion of Iraq, in particular) was an overreaction, that fact is Americans are inordinately afraid. We are not speaking of mere vigilance here — which is necessary — but paranoia. Evidence of this can be observed in the panicky reaction by some passengers when young swarthy men of Indian, Peruvian, Armenian or Burmese descent board the same airliner and begin speaking a strange language into their cell phones. Or — horror of horrors — when the Cartoon Network launches a new outdoor marketing campaign.
Mueller acknowledges that the threat would intensify should terrorists obtain weapons of mass destruction. But this fear too is overblown. He cites the Gilmore Commission Report that indicates it would be extremely difficult for terrorists to acquire weapons of mass destruction, assemble them correctly, transport them, and set them off without being detected.
As for biological weapons, they are unlikely to kill very many people, says Mueller. They are difficult to control, they decay, and historically they have seldom been used. And chemical weapons are not really weapons of mass destruction. They accounted for only seven-tenths of 1 percent of deaths in World War I, and terrorists cannot kill massively with them — by and large. (Mueller’s book is filled with qualifiers like “by and large,” just in case someone were to point out the poison gas attack on, say, Kurdish civilians at Halabja, or 60 Minutes‘ interview with former Russian national security adviser Alexander Lebed, who alleges there are 100 suitcase nukes from the Soviet Union unaccounted for — claims denied by the U.S. and Russian governments.)
To put things in perspective then, Mueller says the scope of the threat has been substantially exaggerated, that terrorism is not an existential threat to the U.S., and America’s survival is not at stake.
FEAR AND INTIMIDATION, of course, is what terrorists are all about. They cannot hope to defeat their opponent militarily, so they hope to bankrupt him, to scare him into policy revision, or to turn a population against its government.
According to Mueller, the U.S. has played right into Osama bin Laden’s hands. He quotes bin Laden saying, “What we’re trying to do is spend the U.S. into bankruptcy.” And “America is full of fear…thank God for that.” But most telling is when Mueller quotes ABC’s Charles Gibson on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, spewing the strange amalgamation of hype, feel-goodism and fear we have come to expect from the ratings-mad mainstream media: “Now putting your child on a school bus, driving across a bridge or going to mall is a small act of courage. Peril is a part of everyday life.” At this rate, buying a pack of cigarettes and lottery ticket at the Quickie Mart will soon earn you the Bronze Star. On this same topic I received in my email just this morning a solicitation from David Horowitz to support Terror Awareness Month (download the guide here). Apparently a week of scaring the hell out of Americans was not enough.
Mueller loses me when he begins comparing the costs of 9/11 to the trillions spent on Homeland Security and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The first two were undeniably necessary, and the later war was bound to happen sooner or later. And when he writes more Americans died in traffic accidents in the four months after 9/11 — because they were afraid to fly — than died in 9/11, he sounds positively ghoulish. There is a rather important distinction to be made between accidents and murderous acts of terror meant to destroy one’s civilization. Nor am I much bothered that the FBI has changed its focus from white collar crime and art theft to terrorism, or that the costs of waiting an additional half hour at the airport costs the U.S. economy $8-15 billion annually.
But these are mere quibbles. Mueller is on to something important. He notes that Homeland Security came up with 80,000 suspected terrorist targets in the U.S. Many of these were downright silly, like outdoor water parks, grocery stores, and banks, but all of them are getting taxpayer money to beef up security. After all, post-9/11 the government had to be seen to be doing something about security and the easiest way to do that was to create new agencies and throw barrels of money at the problem, all of which has increased the size of government and spawned a monolithic taxpayer-funded terrorism industry.
Mueller recommends the U.S. government shift its policy focus from the limited danger of terrorist attack to reducing fear and controlling our overreaction. Meanwhile the international community needs to deal with the nukes issue and step up international policing. Most important, the U.S. needs to control its border. (Want to sneak a nuke into the U.S.? Mueller asks. Put it in a bail of marijuana.)
Conservatives are likely to be put off by much of Mueller’s book, and in particular the way he says it (he praises Michael Moore a bit too much for my taste). But the book raises some important points and has initiated an important debate. If for no other reason Mueller’s book is worth a read.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor and runs the Existential Journalist.