Why have there been no terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11? It is ridiculously easy for a single person with a bomb-filled backpack, or a single explosives-laden automobile, to launch an attack. So why hasn't it happened? The answer is surely not the Department of Homeland Security, which cannot stop terrorists from entering the country, legally or otherwise. It is surely not the Iraq war, which has stoked the hatred of Muslim extremists around the world and wasted many thousands of lives. Terrorist attacks have been regular events for many years usually killing handfuls of people, occasionally more than that.
Is it possible that there is a simple explanation for the peaceful American homefront? Is it possible that there are no al-Qaeda terrorists here? Is it possible that the war on terror has been a radical overreaction to a rare event? Consider: 80,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants have been subjected to fingerprinting and registration, and more than 5,000 foreign nationals have been imprisoned yet there has not been a single conviction for a terrorist crime in America. A handful of plots some deadly, some intercepted have plagued Europe and elsewhere, and even so, the death toll has been modest.
We have gone to war in two countries and killed tens of thousands of people. We have launched a massive domestic wiretapping program and created vast databases of information once considered private. Politicians and pundits have berated us about national security and patriotic duty, while encroaching our freedoms and sending thousands of young men off to die.
It is time to consider the hypothesis that dare not speak its name:we have wildly overreacted. Terrorism has been used by murderous groups for many decades, yet even including 9/11, the odds of an American being killed by international terrorism are microscopic. In general, international terrorism doesn't do much damage when considered in almost any reasonable context.
The capacity of al-Qaeda or of any similar group to do damage in the United States pales in comparison to the capacity other dedicated enemies, particularly international Communism, have possessed in the past. Lashing out at the terrorist threat is frequently an exercise in self-flagellation because it is usually more expensive than the terrorist attack itself and because it gives the terrorists exactly what they are looking for. Much, probably most, of the money and effort expended on counterterrorism since 2001 (and before, for that matter) has been wasted.
The terrorism industry and its allies in the White House and Congress have preyed on our fears and caused enormous damage. It is time to rethink the entire enterprise and spend much smaller amounts on only those things that do matter: intelligence, law enforcement, and disruption of radical groups overseas. Above all, it is time to stop playing into the terrorists' hands, by fear-mongering and helping spread terror itself.
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About the Author
He is the author of several classic works of political science and many editorial page columns and articles in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Reason, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
Mueller is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has been a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, and has received grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has also received several teaching prizes.
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Worth pondering is John Mueller¿s thesis that America¿s response to 9/11 has been overwrought and misdirected thereby creating unintended collateral damage to America itself. In an attempt to dampen hysteria, impose perspective and restore reason, he asks that we consider the following question. ¿Which is the greater threat: terrorism or our reaction to it?¿ By now it is clear to some that because the actual domestic terrorist threat appears to be less than the earlier frenzy conveyed, in ¿lashing out¿ America has done harm to itself in a variety of ways. American troop casualties equal or exceed those of the original 9/11 attacks. The First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment Constitutional protections of personal freedom continue to suffer assault almost weekly in an atmosphere of apprehension stoked by what Mueller labels as the ¿terrorism industry¿ composed of old fashioned journalistic sensationalism, thinly informed politicians and terrorism ¿experts,¿ and those who exploit fear for financial and political gain. Opportunistic pork barrelers have grabbed the golden goose and squandered billions of tax dollars on dubious security projects thereby diverting money away from ordinary law enforcement, health and education programs, and genuinely useful security projects. The stature and recruiting prowess of real terrorist organizations abroad have been enhanced among prospective adherents across the globe because American leadership endlessly hawks the danger of those organizations further rewarding and thereby emboldening their members while proliferating paranoia for partisan political purposes. Far too many Americans holding positions of power and influence have forgotten or refuse to understand what Letterman reminds us nightly with FDR¿s own voice: ¿that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.¿ And about the only place available to the general public to hear Mueller¿s counterbalancing perspective is in the double entendre laden satire of Colbert and Stewart and the highly literate commentary of Olbermann whose rising star in his era may yet stand him along side Murrow, Mencken and now Mueller for illuminating and deflating the ¿abounding quackeries¿ of illogic, unreason, and pretension swirling about. How, one may ask, can Mueller assess the domestic terrorist threat arguing from historical analogy while sitting in his ivory tower? The usefulness of his presentation is not to determine a precise probability of a new terrorist attack although some readers might say that he does come close to saying ¿Don¿t worry about it.¿ Presumably, calculating a numerical index of danger is being done by field agents and with computer models daily. Rather his argument needs to serve as a counterbalance against overreaction and prolonging mistakes. Bobby counseled caution during the Cuban missile crisis. Ike turned down the opportunity to participate in Vietnam in 1954. Ron took his foot out of the Lebanon fire in 1983. George Sr. was repelled by the thought of endless urban guerilla combat in Baghdad in 1991. These are the lessons of prudence that Mueller promotes in his historical examination of American crisis politics. And while many readers will reject Mueller¿s alternative scenarios of how history might have turned out for the better (at least for many who were its casualties) had his policies guided by hindsight been adopted, his larger message of caution and foresight remains imperative. It screams for attention. As with most challenges or crises, fear waxes and wanes with time and Mueller suggests that because mass fear is destructive in so many ways, the reduction of fear is good. Warnings about new imminent attacks so far have amounted to ¿crying wolf¿ and this reduces fear through repetition. Furthermore, Mueller argues that there just may not be (many or any) terrorists or cells in the U.S. and therefore the domestic threat is far less than official pronouncements and terrorism experts and writers have led us t