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100% Scared: How the National Security Complex Grows on Terrorism Fears

Americans don't expect 100% safety from illness, car crashes, or even shark attacks. But our obsession with 100% safety from terrorism is fueling the military-industrial complex.
 
 
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Here’s a scenario to chill you to the bone: 
 

Without warning, the network -- a set of terrorist super cells -- struck in northern Germany and Germans began to fall by the hundreds, then thousands.  As panic spread, hospitals were overwhelmed with the severely wounded.  More than 20 of the victims died. 

No one doubted that it was al-Qaeda, but where the terrorists had come from was unknown.  Initially, German officials accused Spain of harboring them (and the Spanish economy promptly took a hit); then, confusingly, they retracted the charge.  Alerts went off across Europe as fears spread.  Russia closed its borders to the European Union, which its outraged leaders denounced as a “disproportionate” response. Even a small number of Americans visiting Germany ended up hospitalized.

In Washington, there was panic, though no evidence existed that the terrorists were specifically targeting Americans or that any of them had slipped into this country.  Still, at a hastily called news conference, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano raised the new terror alert system for the first time from its always “elevated“ status to “imminent” (that is, “ a credible, specific, and impending threat”).  Soon after, a Pentagon spokesman announced that the U.S. military had been placed on high alert across Europe.

Commentators on Fox News, quoting unnamed FBI sources, began warning that this might be the start of the “next 9/11” -- and that the Obama administration was unprepared for it.  Former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a rare public appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, denounced the president for “heedlessly putting this country at risk from the terrorists.”  In Congress, members of both parties rallied behind calls for hundreds of millions of dollars of supplementary emergency funding for the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen airport safety.  (“In such difficult economic times,” said House Speaker John Boehner, “Congress will have to find cuts from non-military discretionary spending at least equal to these necessary supplementary funds.”)

Finally, as the noise in the media echo chamber grew, President Obama called a prime-time news conference and addressed the rising sense of hysteria in Washington and the country, saying: “Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies will stop at nothing in their efforts to kill Americans.  And we are determined not only to thwart those plans, but to disrupt, dismantle and defeat their networks once and for all.”  He then ordered a full review of U.S. security and intelligence capabilities and promised a series of “concrete steps to protect the American people: new screening and security for all flights, domestic and international;... more air marshals on flights; and deepening cooperation with international partners.”

Terrorism Tops Shark Attacks

The first part of this scenario is, of course, a “terrorist” version of the still ongoing E. coli outbreak in Germany -- the discovery of an all-new antibiotic-resistant “super toxic variant” of the bacteria that has caused death and panic in Europe.  Although al-Qaeda and E. coli do sound a bit alike, German officials initially (and evidently incorrectly) accused Spanish cucumbers, not terrorists in Spain or German beansprouts, of causing the crisis.  And the “disproportionate” Russian response was not to close its borders to the European Union, but to ban E.U. vegetables until the source of the outbreak is discovered.

Above all, the American over-reaction was pure fiction.  In fact, scientists here have been urging calm and mid-level government officials have been issuing statements of reassurance on the safety of the country’s food supply system.  No one attacked the government for inaction; Cheney did not excoriate the president, nor did Napolitano raise the terror alert level, and Obama’s statement, quoted above, was given on January 5, 2010, in the panicky wake of the “underwear bomber’s” failed attempt to blow a hole in a Christmas day plane headed from Amsterdam to Detroit.