But Fear Itself

Overblown by John MuellerWith public alarm over terrorism still running high in America, and with media outlets such as the Drudge Report and Fox News continually stoking such fears, one might be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the United States hasnt experienced an attack on its own soil since 9/11. Despite initial fears that more than 5,000 operatives and sympathizers were active within our borders, the government has not identified a single cell, nor have its comprehensive visitor- and immigration-screening programs discovered many suspects trying to get in. Of course, it could be that al-Qaeda is too sophisticated for our defenses. Terrorist methods, we have been led to believe, often outstrip the sophistication of the worlds best intelligence agencies.

Or maybe were simply not as endangered as we feel. Thats the case that Ohio State University political science professor and noted contrarian John Mueller sets out to make in Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%Overblown is a polemical, sometimes tedious, but important book that delights in the same exasperated enthusiasm in busting up conventional wisdom about homeland security that Richard Dawkinss The God Delusion enjoys regarding organized religion. A threat that is real but likely to prove to be of limited scope has been massively, perhaps even fancifully, inflated to produce widespread and unjustified anxiety, Mueller writes. This has caused the United States to harm itself by overreacting with wasteful spending and war.

Overblown argues that the United States has been overestimating threats since at least as far back as the 1930s. As Mueller writes, every foreign policy threat in the past several decades that has come to be accepted as significant has then eventually been unwisely exaggerated. And he does mean every. Among his examples of U.S. overreaction are the invasion of Panama, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and even World War II. In all of these cases, Mueller believes American planners allowed fear and hysteria rather than sober-minded judgment to rule their decision-making processes. The enemy, pretty much, is us, he states.

This is obviously not a man whos afraid of provocative claims. For example, Mueller asserts that the bombing of Pearl Harbor did not require all-out war in response. Instead, American planners should have employed a policy of containment and harassment against Japan, undercutting the militarists in the Japanese government and providing cover for moderates who urged restraint. If not for Roosevelts overreaction, millions of lives and dollars would have been saved.

Mueller is no less compromising on the U.S. policy of containment against the Soviet Union practiced during the cold war. According to Mueller, this too was unnecessary. After all, if George Kennan was right to say that an expansionist Soviet Union would eventually rot from within, then surely the best policy would have been to hasten that fateful day by allowing it to expand.

Most readers, of course, will be justifiably put off by such reasoning. But it is worth postponing the urge to throw the book across the room in order to get to the more persuasive arguments the author makes about terrorism.

As Mueller points out, every bust of a terrorism suspect in the United States has ended up being less important than originally claimed. Jose Padilla never got anywhere close to manufacturing a dirty bomb, if indeed he ever intended to. (The charge was dropped when he was removed from military custody into federal court, where the burden of proof for such a charge is much greater than in the media.) Indeed, no one has yet unearthed a genuine terrorist cell operating within the United States. Perhaps, Mueller writes, an entirely plausible explanation is that there is no significant international terrorist presence in this country. Having failed to plant a sleeper network prior to the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda simply cant get past our much-improved visa screening procedures.

Overblown also stresses that real danger requires both intent and capacity, the latter of which is much more limited than typically believed. Apart from a few films of dogs being poisoned, there is little evidence that Islamic terrorists have ever succeeded in obtaining weapons of mass destruction. Such weapons are hard to get, and even harder to use, since radioactive materials and biological agents typically threaten their handlers long before they can be weaponized. Even if al-Qaeda were to succeed in manufacturing such horrorsat secret university-grade labs in the Pakistani mountains, perhapsMueller rightly points out that the weapons would still induce more fear than damage. Anthrax is deadly but infects slowly, providing ample time for countermeasures, and even then effective dispersal could easily be interrupted by unfavorable environmental and meteorological conditions. A dirty bomb would cause panic but not necessarily more death than a conventional one. And al-Qaeda clearly prefers martyrdom operations to standoff attacks, so it seems likely that they will continue with the same methods that have worked in the past. The truly notable innovation for terrorists over the past few decades has not been in qualitative improvements in ordnance at all, Mueller says, but rather in a more effective method for delivering it: the suicide bomber. Such damage, he points out, can be readily absorbed. We absorbed it on 9/11; so too did the British and Spanish last year. To call such threats existential, Mueller argues, is somewhere between extravagant and absurd.

Unfortunately, policy making since 9/11 hardly reflects such thinking. Instead, we are spending money on fanciful threatsand spending it heavily. According to one 2006 congressional report, $34 billion in homeland security projects experienced significant overcharges, wasteful spending, or mismanagement. And thats not accounting for opportunity costs. In 2005, Mueller notes, 758 scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, raised an outcry because of what they saw as a major shift of research funds from pathogens of high public health significance to obscure organisms of high biodefense, but low public health, importance. An overemphasis may have also worsened the effects of Hurricane Katrina, with $2 billion spent on counterterrorism grants to states but only $180 million for natural disasters.

While Mueller makes a good case for the extent and cost of our overreaction, he has little to say, regrettably, about what we should actually do about it. Mueller is far less interested, it seems, in the minutiae of policy than in shaping the thoughts of the public. Because the main cost of terrorism generally derives from the anguish and overreaction of the terrorized, he says, policies should seek to reduce the fear and anxiety that are so often unjustified and costly and do so as inexpensively as possible. To this end, he supports the same policies that security guru Bruce Schneier has derided as security theaterthe airport checkpoint rituals that add little value other than to make it appear that the government is taking fears seriously. Politicians should constantly be on the look-out for cheap, even costless measures that reduce fear, Mueller counsels. As for cutting down on the waste and disorder we see today, Mueller has little to offer other than a call for the elimination of the air marshals program, on the sensible grounds that cabin-door locks have eliminated the hijacking threat.

This may be sound advice, but its terribly limited. Thats a shame, because preventing most terrorism mainly involves simple commonsense measures, and the book would have benefited from a description of them. One thing that works is a strong border-control system, as weve seen in Israel. (In this way, protecting the homeland is very much like protecting the home: keeping the doors and windows locked removes most of the risk, reliably and with little cost and inconvenience.) Standardized drivers licenses and government employee identification cards are also helpful. And securing against the most dangerous attacks of all, such as those on chemical plants, makes sense, so that terrorists can kill only hundreds, not thousands, at one time.

Still, while Muellers book is far from perfect, its a welcome counter to much of the alarmism that passes for analysis these days. It also has an interesting idea for the press, which has done so much to stoke public fears. A useful public service would be to cumulate a record of the many false warnings that have been issued by the terrorism industry, Mueller suggests. A systematic and very public tabulation of such doomsaying might prove to be a notable contribution to fear reduction. Someone should try. Whoever decides to take up this call wont be assuming a heavy burden. The Drudge Report archives are right there on the Web.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation