Ho hum. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and now partner of Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda has called upon his fellow jihadists to get busy and kill some more infidels and Jews “The crusaders and the Jews only understand the language of murder and bloodshed,” he insists, “and are only convinced by coffins, destroyed interests, burning towers and a shattered economy.” Accordingly he calls upon his co-religionists to “turn the ground beneath their feet into an inferno.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not rushing out to buy asbestos shoes.
Even before this latest call to arms, however, our government in response to who-knows-what new threat had raised the color-coded terror alert level to orange, the second highest available. “Senior American and Saudi officials have been warning this week,” says the New York Times, “that global intelligence monitoring indicated that another attack was ‘imminent.'” Imminent, eh? Is it just my imagination or hasn’t this long-awaited attack been imminent quite a lot lately? Or rather “imminent,” since on none of these occasions of near maximum imminence has it — or anything else — actually happened. Nothing. Not so much as a terrorist saying boo!
No one in his right mind would want to recommend complacency, but isn’t there some danger that if we go on frightening ourselves like this, and taking seriously the warnings of lunatics and shameless liars, that there will be a cry-wolf effect? After the tenth or the twentieth or the thirtieth time a serious attack is pronounced “imminent” it’s finally going to sink in that the thing isn’t imminent at all. In fact, it’s probably never going to happen. Which of course will be when it does happen.
But cheer up! You wouldn’t know it from the department of homeland security, but the terrorist threat is actually declining. As Amir Taheri reports in the Times of London, “acts of international terrorism fell by almost half from 2001 to 2002 — to the lowest figure since 1969.” Moreover, although “there were 199 ‘acts of global terrorism’ in 2002. There were no acts of terror in the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia, designated as special targets by al-Qaeda.” Nearly half of what attacks there were took place in Asia — the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Pakistan — and by far the largest part of the rest took place in the Middle East or Latin America (mostly Colombia). None can be with certainty attributed to al-Qaeda. “Judging by the internal debate within the Islamist terror movement, al-Qaeda is in disarray, its remaining leaders on the run,” writes Taheri, though “other Islamist terror organisations … remain intact.”
Yet never before have we been so nervous and jumpy about terrorism. As Mick Hume, also writing in the Times put it, “The West’s fearful response to each new threat or attack is acting as an open invitation to every little terrorist cell. The message is, ‘We are scared, so why not scare us some more?’ All it takes is a few zealots with home-made bombs in Africa or Asia to have the Western world pressing the panic button.” After all, as the name suggests, the point of terrorism is not to kill people so much as it is to frighten them, and so much the better for the terrorists if they can bring about the maximum of terror with the minimum of trouble and effort required actually to deliver on one of their threats.
Hume concludes that it is not so much individual fearfulness as it is the culture of fearfulness promoted by the government response to terrorism that is to blame:
The irony is that, since September 11, most Americans and others caught up in terrorist attacks have shown admirable resilience and courage. Yet our official culture seems always to focus on our fear and vulnerability. It is a policy which one top Downing Street adviser last week characterised as “organised paranoia”, a risk-averse “better safe than sorry” approach that is likely to leave us no more safe, but much more sorry.
Who wants to live under a system of organised paranoia? And who needs al-Qaeda, when we seem perfectly capable of scaring ourselves to death?
I hate to be a Johnny One-Note, but he’s leaving out something important here, and that is the role of the press in ensuring that this paranoia never goes away. For the dynamics of the media culture demand a story, and not just any story but a story of secret things hidden and blame rightly apportioned in spite of official attempts to deflect it. In short, the press is always looking for a cover-up, so that when anything bad happens its first instinct is to find someone other than the perpetrators who is or can be represented to be (a) responsible for the outrage and (b) prepared to deny that responsibility. That’s all it needs. From there on the story writes itself.
In the left-wing press, of course, the man behind the cover-up is most likely to be George W. Bush himself. Gore Vidal takes it for granted that the President knew about the September 11th attacks and chose not to stop them because they suited his larger domestic and geopolitical purposes. But if most Americans are unlikely to be persuaded that their leaders are criminal murderers, or accessories to murder, on the grand scale, there is still plenty of willingness to look to him or to his administration for scapegoats if anything else goes wrong. And this is where the culture of paranoia comes in.
For those in charge of “homeland security” at all levels have been handed a poisoned chalice. They know that whatever may happen — and there are an infinite number of things that can happen — any slightest evidence of inattention or apparent unconcern for whatever vulnerability is attacked — and there are an infinite number of vulnerabilities — will bring the blame down upon their heads. So they must frantically warn and warn and warn in advance in the hope of covering all eventualities. Their motto is “better be safe than sorry” all right, only it is not our safety they are thinking of but their own.
It is pointless to blame them for this. It is just elementary bureaucratic procedure, universally known as cover-your-ass or CYA, and hardly something that can be wished away. But if the bureaucrats themselves are not to be blamed, the press can be blamed for making the bureaucratic, CYA culture everybody’s culture when it comes to reporting on terrorism. People are no doubt pre-disposed to seek someone to blame for their misfortunes, someone — unlike the terrorists — who may be expected to feel the sting of their reproaches. But the press encourages this natural tendency by its instinct for mistrust, and its perpetual quest for the holy journalistic grail of guilty secrets being covered up.
That’s hard luck on anyone foolish enough to go into politics, of course, but hard luck on the rest of us too if it means that we must continue to live in the system of organized paranoia.