The demagogic exaggeration of the "terrorist
threat," which was the centerpiece of the last Republican debates, is easily
deflated with just a moment's thought. What is the chance that any particular resident
of the United States will happen to be in the same place as someone who intends to
murder in the name of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, or some other cause? Less than
minuscule. Many commonplace things are likely to kill you long before you encounter an
Islamist, white-supremacist, or anti-abortion terrorist in the United States. Typically,
we don't find it worth the money it would take to substantially reduce those other
risks. We could cut traffic fatalities considerably by outlawing left turns and reducing
the speed limit to 5 MPH. But who would support those measures? So why tolerate the
government's spending trillions of dollars (not to mention the violations of liberty) in
its futile attempts to save us and our open society from all possible terrorism -
especially when it could make us safer by spending less money and respecting our liberty
through a noninterventionst foreign policy?
Of course, the assessment of the small risk would change - although not significantly,
given the size of the U.S. population and land mass - if we knew that the number of
would-be terrorists was growing. But we can be confident, as John Mueller and Mark. G. Stewart note, that the number is tiny. How
do we know? We know because we don't see much terrorism in the United States. As Mueller
and Stewart note, 9/11 was an obvious outlier and many of the foiled terrorist plots
were instigated or at least advanced by FBI informants. (Attacks at military facilities
should not be counted as terrorism, a loaded term coined to let the US government and
Israel get away with murder.) And what terrorism we've seen has not been terribly
Some forms of terrorism are difficult to pull off. The coordinated hijacking of
multiple airplanes by men armed with box cutters (although low-tech) was no simple
mission, and with (low-tech) locks on flight-deck doors it has become even more
difficult. But other forms are easy if you don't mind dying or, indeed, you wish to die.
It is not rocket science to come up with ways to kill lots of innocent people. Sayed
Farook and Tashfeen Malik walked into a crowded office party with legally purchased
firearms, killed 14 people, and wounded 22. In Israel the other day, a Palestinian drove
his car into a group of Israelis waiting for a bus. That sort of activity cannot be
foiled unless the perpetrators publicly declare their intentions, which, by the way,
Malik did not do. Others are not likely to do so either.
If America were crawling with ISIS cells or self-"radicalized" lone wolves, we'd be
seeing far more violence than we've seen. Right after 9/11, officials and analysts said
they were certain a "second wave" was coming. It did not happen.
Moreover, as Mueller and Stewart point out, most would-be terrorists appear to be
misfits who couldn't bomb their way out of a paper bag and wouldn't even try without
goading by an FBI informant. The fear-mongering anti-terrorism complex - which consists
of the government-media-"terrorism-expert" industry - portrays would-be terrorists as an
invincible force of crack operatives led by "masterminds" who are high-tech wizards.
(The fear-mongers would have you believe that encryption was invented by ISIS.) But the
record does not support this picture. Just as the Cold Warriors had a financial and
power interest in having us think the Russians were 10 feet tall, so the
counter-terrorism lobby has the same interest in persuading us that "Islamists" are
uniquely and diabolically cunning; they will soon be making suitcase nukes, it is
intimated, and bringing them to Times Square.
Republican presidential candidates delight in saying that "we are at war." Indeed,
depending on whether you count the Cold War, we're either in World War III or World War
IV. Balderdash! The terrorist incidents in the West in fact demonstrate the asymmetrical
nature of what's going on between the United States and its targets in the Muslim world.
The US government and its accomplices are waging actual war. Even if the ground force is
(currently) small and remote-controlled drones are increasingly preferred over
conventional bombers and gunships, the war now conducted by the West is not far removed
from traditional war.
In contrast, terrorists commit crimes (torts, really) against people in the United
States, France, etc. They shoot up parties, concert halls, and restaurants. It's
horrible, but it's not war. ISIS and al-Qaeda have no armies capable of invading the
United States, no navies, no air forces. They have no ability to conquer the country or
bring down the government. In no sense can they defeat us. Only we can do that.
"We" are at war with them. They are not at war with us. The terrorism we've witnessed
is resorted to precisely because they, or more precisely their domestic sympathizers,
are unable to wage war against American society. Those who insist loudest that we are
being warred upon understand that a government on a war footing will be permitted to
exercise an intolerable degree of power over us. Presidential candidates drool over the
thought of themselves as commanders-in-chief.
When Rick Santorum, echoing his presidential rivals, says that "radical Islam is on
the move and their motives are to destroy the western world," he's merely vying for
votes by spreading baseless fear. A few "lone wolves" do not constitute "radical Islam,"
and motives (even if correctly ascertained) are irrelevant when capability is lacking.
Mueller and Stewart describe a "terrorist" who aspired to topple the Sears Tower in
Chicago, have it slide into Lake Michigan, where it would (he hoped) create a tsunami,
which would wash back on the city, and open a jail, springing the inmates. Shall we lose
sleep over such plots?
As I've said before, the price exacted from Americans by the cynical anti-terrorism
complex consists in lost liberty, lost privacy, lost prosperity, and needless stress.
But there's another high price: the social destruction that will result from the
suspicion directed at American (and other) Muslims. It's well-established that ISIS and
al-Qaeda want to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims in America and elsewhere.
American politicians say they don't want that to happen, but the logic of their rhetoric
and authoritarian proposals cannot help but sow hostility toward all Muslims.
The UN High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change "defined terrorism as any action intended
to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of
intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to
do, or abstain from, any act."
[American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature
of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to
single-digits in some Arab societies.
Muslims do not "hate our freedom," but rather, they hate our policies. The
overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in
favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing
support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi
Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic
societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that
"freedom is the future of the Middle East" is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs
are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World - but Muslims do not feel this
way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.
Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has
not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in
contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to
best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-
Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire
radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have
elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy
among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the
entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack - to broad public support.
What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only
has there been a proliferation of "terrorist" groups: the unifying context of a shared
cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries
that divide Islam.
Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic - namely, that the war is all
about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is - for Americans - really no
more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception
is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless
sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just
talking to themselves.