Critics of President Bush’s conduct in the War on Terror get testy when they are accused of not taking the threat of terrorism seriously, but with increasing prominence, they are making their true feelings known.
Quite simply, they don’t think terrorism is a big deal.
In a recent American Prospect column, Matthew Yglesias wrote that the Bush administration has been “fostering a climate of panic and paranoia” and “blowing the risks of conventional terrorism all out of proportion…”
John Mueller, who has lately been making a career out of downplaying terrorism, has an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs entitled, “Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?” In it, he writes: “The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.”
Reason‘s Ronald Bailey pointed out that people are more likely to die in a car accident, drowning, fire or by murder than in a terrorist attack. This lead him to conclude that “with risks this low there is no reason for us not to continue to live our lives as though terrorism doesn’t matter — because it doesn’t really matter.”
Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State University, made a similar argument in a 2004 article for Regulation, in which he wrote that since the late 1960s, the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks is “about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reactions to peanuts.” The statistic is slightly misleading because starting in the 1960s allowed Mueller to include many years of data during which time terrorism was not as widespread as it has been since the 1990s. So, for instance, between 1990 and 2003, 756 people were killed by lightning, according to the National Lightning Safety Institute. That’s about one-fourth the number of people who died on Sept. 11.
But there’s no reason to squabble over such details. The overarching point is true enough. There are a lot of potential causes of premature death, many of which have proved far more deadly to Americans than terrorism. However, it’s also true that Americans have taken precautions against those other dangers — precautions that may have at one time seemed drastic. When I was in elementary school, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were my lunchtime staple. For my niece, they are contraband, because like many other schools today, hers is peanut-free. Traffic accidents are still a major cause of death in America, but the death rate has declined considerably over the past several decades as a result of seat belts, air bags and drunk-driving laws. More recently, states have passed laws restricting cell phone use.
Even this analysis, however, gives too much credit to comparisons between terrorism and other causes of death. Murders and car accidents may kill more Americans than terrorism does, but those deaths occur across fifty states, for a litany of different reasons. Terrorism is primarily caused by Islamic fundamentalists from the Middle East who have declared war on modernity and are often financed or hosted by countries that are our avowed enemies. If an overwhelming majority of homicides in the U.S. were caused by a loose collection of gangs from California who shared similar ideological motives for killing Americans, the war on crime would be fought a lot differently. Traffic laws might change drastically if, say, 99 percent of accidents were caused by German automobiles with stick shifts.
Furthermore, terrorism is a different type of threat because in addition to the human carnage it leaves behind, it targets symbols of American power and prosperity (such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon). Were we to have a nonchalant attitude toward terrorism because it mathematically presents a lower fatality risk relative to other dangers, it would not only put us at risk for attacks worse than Sept. 11, but it would demonstrate weakness to current and potential adversaries. As the 9/11 Commission reported, Osama Bin Laden was inspired by the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia in 1993. How would our enemies and allies view America today were we to brush aside dastardly attacks on prominent symbols of our financial and military might?
Some may say that I am attacking a straw man by accusing others of wanting to brush aside terrorist attacks, but that is precisely what Mueller suggested in his Regulation article when he wrote, “a sensible policy approach to the problem might be to stress that any damage terrorists are able to accomplish likely can be absorbed, however grimly.” In other words, when people are killed in a terrorist attack, just move on, because just as many people might drown in their bathtubs.
As scary as that attitude might sound today, that’s precisely how we did treat terrorism prior to Sept. 11. In 1993, when 6 people were killed and 1,000 injured in the first World Trade Center attack, President Clinton warned Americans not to “overreact.” His administration treated the attack as a simple criminal matter, ignoring crucial evidence that revealed grander ambitions among Islamists to attack America. Americans did have Bailey’s terrorism “doesn’t really matter” attitude throughout the 1990s, and as a result we ignored the threat of al Qaeda as it carried out attacks against American targets with increasing frequency, boldness and sophistication: Khobar Towers in 1996, U.S. Embassies in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000.
Those who argue that the terrorist threat is being overblown also make the mistake of thinking that just because something hasn’t happened in the past, it won’t happen in the future. In his piece, Yglesias mocks the reaction to the recent British terror arrests, noting that “Precisely zero people have been killed in liquid explosive attacks.” Well, through Sept. 10, 2001, precisely zero Americans were killed by hijacked airliners being flown into skyscrapers, but that provided little comfort to those whose lives were cut short the next morning.
The further we get from Sept. 11th, the more temptation there will be to become complacent in the face of the terrorist threat. In fact, this is precisely why terrorism presents such a unique danger and why it is much more effective at dividing our country than more conventional threats we have faced.
Since Sept. 11th, we have seen attacks at a Bali nightclub, on Egyptian resorts, on trains in Madrid and Mumbai, on London’s public transportation systems as well as continued attacks on Israel. Even if you buy into the view that Iraq has nothing to do with terrorism, there is clearly a global war taking place.
Fortunately, terrorists have been unable to mount a successful attack on U.S. soil in almost five years, but that is more a testament to our increased awareness of the threat than a reason to return to the carefree attitude of the past.
Philip Klein is a reporter for The American Spectator.