John Tierney is spot on when he points to the growth of the terrorism industry. Actual terroristic acts are few, and far in between, but the terrorism industry, and its claim on our tax dollars, waxes large. For an allegedly conservative columnist, Mr. Tierney actually has some sense, based on the last 3-4 columns he has published.
John Tierney: Waiting for Al Qaeda - New York Times :
Compared with past threats — like Communist sociopaths with nuclear arsenals — Al Qaeda’s terrorists are a minor problem. They certainly don’t justify the hyperbolic warnings that America’s “existence” or “way of life” is in jeopardy, or that America must transform the Middle East in order to survive. There undoubtedly will be more terrorist attacks, either from Al Qaeda or others, just as there were before 2001. Terrorists might strike Monday. There will always be homicidal zealots like Mohamed Atta or Timothy McVeigh, and some of them will succeed, terribly. But this is not a new era. The terrorist threat is still small. It’s the terrorism industry that got big.
John Mueller has an awkward question for those of us in the terrorism industry, which is his term for the journalists, politicians, bureaucrats and assorted “risk entrepreneurs” who have alarmed America about terrorism.
For five years, we’ve been telling Americans that Sept. 11 changed everything. “It will always be a defining moment in our history,” President Bush says in this year’s Patriot Day proclamation. We declared it a harbinger of a new clash of civilizations, a global ideological struggle — World War III, in Newt Gingrich’s words.
We reported intelligence estimates of thousands of Al Qaeda terrorists and supporters in “sleeper cells” in America. In May 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that Al Qaeda’s preparations for an attack were 90 percent complete. We braced for acts of terrorism forecast to occur during the political conventions, the presidential campaign, on Election Day, after Election Day. Through yellow and orange alerts, we kept in mind the Department of Homeland Security’s warning: “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time and with virtually any weapon.”
So what’s keeping them? That’s the question raised by Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
“Why,” he asks, “have they not been sniping at people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil pipelines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless other vulnerabilities that, according to security experts, could so easily be exploited?”
The Bush administration likes to take credit for stopping domestic plots, but it’s hard to gauge whether these are much more than the fantasies of a few klutzes. Bush also claims that the war in Iraq has diverted terrorists’ attention there, but why wouldn’t global jihadists want the added publicity from attacking America at home, too? Al Qaeda’s leaders threatened in 2003 to attack America — along with a half dozen other countries that haven’t been attacked either.
Mueller’s conclusion is that there just aren’t that many terrorists out there with the zeal and the competence to attack the United States. In his forthcoming book, “Overblown,” he argues that the risk of terrorism didn’t increase after Sept. 11 — if anything, it declined because of a backlash against Al Qaeda, making it a smaller and less capable threat than before. But the terrorism industry has been too busy hyping Sept. 11 and several other attacks to notice.
It has found a new audience for old dangers. For more than half a century, experts have warned that terrorists could destroy a city with a weapon of mass destruction. They still might, but their failure so far suggests it isn’t easy to do, and it didn’t suddenly become easier on Sept. 11.
There are plenty of fighters willing to use terrorist tactics locally during civil wars and insurrections, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya or Kashmir. But it’s harder to recruit competent warriors to fight abroad, and harder for them to operate in orderly countries where the citizenry and the authorities both want to stop them.
“Outside of Afghanistan and Iraq,” Mueller says, “the number of people killed around the world since Sept. 11 by groups in sympathy with Al Qaeda is not that high. These are horrible and disgusting deaths, but they’re not a sign of a diabolically effective organization. The total is less than the number of Americans who drowned in bathtubs during this period.”
As it is, he figures, the odds of an American being killed by international terrorism are about one in 80,000. And even if there were attacks on the scale of Sept. 11 every three months for the next five years, the odds for any individual dying would be one in 5,000.
Compared with past threats — like Communist sociopaths with nuclear arsenals — Al Qaeda’s terrorists are a minor problem. They certainly don’t justify the hyperbolic warnings that America’s “existence” or “way of life” is in jeopardy, or that America must transform the Middle East in order to survive.
There undoubtedly will be more terrorist attacks, either from Al Qaeda or others, just as there were before 2001. Terrorists might strike Monday. There will always be homicidal zealots like Mohamed Atta or Timothy McVeigh, and some of them will succeed, terribly. But this is not a new era. The terrorist threat is still small. It’s the terrorism industry that got big.