Mueller on terrorism: little to fear but fear itself

1 June 2006, 1343 EDT

From a letter published in the Columbus Dispatch:

“Marathon to uproot more trees” was a fantastic report, complete with pictures and the location of the Marathon oil pipeline.

I am sure the terrorists were thrilled to see this report with the pictures – especially the sign, “Warning petroleum pipeline” – and the location of the pipeline.

The media do a beautiful job of telling terrorists all about America’s weaknesses. I am sure the terrorists have so much information from the media on points to strike the United States that they have a hard time deciding which location to strike first.

The notion that terrrorists are sitting around waiting for local newspapers to point them to appropriate targets in central Ohio seems a bit absurd. In “Six Rather Unusual Propositions about Terrorism,”(Terrorism and Political Violence, 17:487-505, 2005) John Mueller argues (PDF) that the real problem isn’t the objective threat posed by terrorism, but the political consequences of the kind of irrational fears expressed in this letter.

Mueller’s six propositions:

1. Terrorism generally has only limited direct effects

[The] likelihood that any individual will become a victim [of terrorism] in most places is microscopic. Although those adept at hyperbole like to proclaim that were live in an ‘age of terror,’ the number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the number who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents.

2. The costs of terrorism very often come mostly from the fear and consequent reaction (or overreaction) it characteristically inspires

The costs of reaction outstripped those inflicted by the terrorists even in the case of the September 11 attacks, which were by far the most destructive in history. The direct economic costs of September 11 amounted to tens of billions of dollars, but the economic costs in the United States of the much-enhanced security runs several times that. The yearly budget for the Department of Homeland Security, for example, is approaching $50 billion per year while state and local governments spend additional billions.

3. The terrorism industry is a major part of the terrorism problem

Meanwhile, Bush’s hastily assembled and massively funded Department of Homeland Security seeks to stoke fear by officially intoning on the first page of its defining manifesto that ”Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.” This warning is true in some sense, of course, but it is also fatuous and misleading. As Benjamin Friedman notes, ”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. For questionable gains in preparedness, we spread paranoia.” Such warnings, continues Friedman, also facilitate the bureaucratically and politically appealing notion that ”if the threat is everywhere, you must spend everywhere,” and they help develop and perpetrate ”a myth of the all-knowing, all-seeing terrorists.” Threat exaggeration is additionally encouraged, even impelled, because politicians and terrorism bureaucrats also have, as Jeffrey Rosen points out, an ”incentive to pass along vague and unconfirmed threats of future violence, in order to protect themselves from criticism” in the event of another attack.

4. Policies designed to deal with terrorism should focus more on reducing fear and anxiety as inexpensively as possible than on objectively reducing the rather limited dangers terrorism is likely actually to pose

4. The reduction of fear and anxiety is in fact actually quite central to dealing with terrorism. The revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, reportedly held that ”the aim of terrorism is to terrify.” And the inspiration of consequent overreaction seems central to bin Laden’s strategy. 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 September 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.

5. Doing nothing (or at least refraining from overreacting) after a terrorist attack is not necessarily unacceptable

Although it is often argued that it is imperative that public officials ”do something”—which usually means overreact—when a terrorist event takes place, there are many instances where no reaction took place and the officials did not suffer politically or otherwise.

6. Despite U.S. overreaction, the campaign against terror is generally going rather well

Despite [the war in Iraq], the campaign against terrorism is generally succeeding because, no matter how much they might disagree on other issues(most notably on America’s war on Iraq), there is a compelling incentive for states—including Arab and Muslim ones, who are also being targeted—to cooperate to deal with this international threat. And since methodical, persistent policing of individuals and small groups is most needed, the process seems to be on the right track. It is not clear that this policing has prevented international terrorism in the United States, however. The number of such incidents in the three years after September 11 was zero, but that was the same number registered in the three years before the attacks at a time
when antiterrorist policing exertions were much lower.

I highly recommend that you read Mueller’s entire piece. If you can think of a counter-argument, the chances are he’s addressed it brilliantly. The best example of this is the question of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. Mueller is certainly right about the relative risks — and the cost-benefit calculations — associated with terrorism. But if you think at all like I do, the nightmare scenario of terrorists with WMD always throws a wrench into such levelheaded assessments. Mueller admits that the risks posed by terrorism “could change if international terrorists are able to assemble sufficient” capabilities to “kill masses of people and if they do so routinely” but points out a number of reasons why we should be wary of the hype surrounding such scenarios. He notes, for example, that chemical weapons just don’t do the trick. During World War I, for example, “it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality.” He argues that the threat posed by biological weapons “remains theoretical because biological weapons have scarcely ever been used…. biological weapons are extremely difficult to deploy and control.” Aum Shinrikyo actually made a number of bioweapons attacks without anyone noticing. So what about nukes? Expensive, difficult, and generally unlikely.

Mueller now speaks of a “terrorism industrial complex” (i.e., the new version of the famous military industrial complex). For those of us who live in Washington, DC, the growth of DHS funded industries looks an awful lot like the explosion of “Beltway Bandits” that developed after the Reagan administration started throwing money at the Strategic Defense Initiative.

The weakest part of the article comes under his fifth proposition. He notes that political inaction in the face of terrorism — such as Reagan’s response to the Lebanon marine-barrack bombing — rarely carries with it political costs. But one could argue, as many do, that the history of American inaction encouraged further attacks that culminated in 9/11. Mueller’s main argument here is that overreaction is a greater risk than under-reaction, but inaction strikes me as a different matter entirely. What Mueller’s driving at, in large part, is that the use of military force is often not the best policy. Policing has, and continues to, prove more effective than military options. Afghanistan probably constitutes the major exception to this rule; yet I would caution against extrapolating too much from the rather specific circumstances surrounding the US-led overthrow of the Taliban. Afghanistan certainly proved a poor analogy for justifying the invasion of Iraq.

Cross-posted at LGM.

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