Terrorism: A False Sense of Insecurity?

In light of reported terrorist attempts last week to blow up planes flying to the United States from London's Heathrow airport, I've been reading a ton of stories and analysis about the incident and doing my best to understand what the hell happened and why.

Then I came across an article -- penned in 2004 actually -- that brought up a few things I don't remember seeing in my frantic hunt for information in the past several days.

According to the piece, lightning strikes, accidents caused by deer and allergic reactions to peanuts have killed more Americans than terrorism has. And, the number of U.S. citizens that drown in bathtubs each year is more than those who die annually worldwide because of terrorism.

You don't hear stats like these too often, and I'm not sure how relevant they even are, but author and scholar John Mueller loves to bring them up.

Mueller, who cited these and other alleged findings in his 2004 article, "A False Sense of Insecurity?" was unshaken by last week's reports of the alleged plot to simultaneously blow up 10 jets headed to the United States from London using liquid explosives inside carry-on luggage.

Mueller is the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, and his book "Overblown: How Politicians, the Terrorism Industry and Others Stoke National Security Fears" hits bookshelves this November. Mueller says that, despite incidents like the one last week and its wave of ripple effects, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the main thing Americans have to fear in 2006 is fear itself -- a fear perpetuated by the Bush administration and disseminated by the mainstream news media.

He recognizes the severity of what could have happened if the plot had been successful, and recognizes the phenomenal tragedy of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But the resulting power of terror, he says, truly lies in the hands of the Bush administration and the mainstream media.

President Bush on Aug. 10 released the following statement regarding the alleged terrorist attempts to blow up airplanes heading to the states from London: "The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic Fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation."

Mueller isn't buying it.

Mueller's easy to go along with in conversation. He poses well-thought arguments in a calm, matter-of-fact way. He's not a fist-pumping dissident, but more of a stoic, soft-spoken and well-informed critic who's been a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Stanford University and the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway. He also wrote a book on dance and scripts for musicals.

In his 2005 "The Iraq Syndrome" article, Mueller argued that American public opinion was a huge factor in the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, and that in each one there was a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases. Broad enthusiasm at the outset invariably erodes, and as a result, the military has fought to keep Americans from seeing pictures of body bags or flag-draped coffins, he wrote.

WireTap caught up with Mueller the day after failed airplane bombings in London . I figured now was a good time to revisit the lightning, deer, peanuts and bathtubs theory.

WireTap: I'm curious how you felt after seeing news reports about the alleged terrorist bombing attempts last week. What was your initial reaction?

John Mueller: "[On Aug. 10, 2006] we raised harassments at U.S. airports. What you got was a CYA (cover your ass) problem," Mueller said. "If we don't do anything, it's a problem. If we do something and something terrible still goes down, we've at least covered our asses. In a sense, we're repealing democracy because terrorists do something, and we do much worse. It's self-punishing."

WT: And what's your analysis of the incident now that you've had time for it to sink in?

JM: The people they picked up are nut cases. But the total number of people killed since 9/11 by Al Qaeda-types is incredibly small. The number [of people] that drown in bathtubs in the U.S. is more significant.

WT: But the fear people feel over terrorism is real and justified. Are Americans panicking? Should they be?

JM: People aren't flying as much, that I know. And they seem to be supportive of our government's massive expenditures in fighting the War on Terror. But not even another few 9/11s can bankrupt the U.S. We're playing into [terrorists'] hands by having only defense spending and defensive actions like restricting immigration.

WT: I saw the phrase "cosmic alarmism" in at least one of your articles, referring to what you might call an over-hyping of the threat of terrorism. Are we experiencing a cosmic alarmism right now, in terms of international terrorism, the Bush administration's current war on terror and mainstream American news reporting on terrorism?

JM: People have contempt for our ideals and our inability to deal with diversity. And now we're moving in the direction of repealing democracy with things like the Patriot Act. We are self-punishing. Terrorists do something, and we end up doing much worse. Look at last week's incidents. Just simply dealing with people plotting to do things causes massive spending in the U.S. At the Los Angeles Airport, $100,000 a day was being spent just to take LAX from a yellow to an orange alert. What we have now is a terrorism industry, and the bureaucracy to support it. People are profiting from fear. Politicians cannot downplay terrorism, or they'll be voted out of office. Bush has completely run with it. And the media? If it bleeds, it reads.

WT: You've referred to the "endless yammering" of news media about terrorism. What did you think about mainstream news coverage of what happened at London's airport two weeks ago?

JM: The day it happened, people were talking about explosives and the plot all day long, which is all very helpful, but nobody talks about how much it's costing the U.S. to do all the counter terrorism things we do. They jump from one story to the next and provide constant coverage on a main event for a couple of days, but there's not enough follow-up. There's an absence of facts about how much terrorism actually kills.

WT: What are a few things you propose people do differently?

JM: People should focus on risk assessment and communication. Yes, terrorists can strike at any time, but people should know that their chances of actually being killed by a terrorist are very small. It's like getting killed by an asteroid. I'm not trying to downplay the tragedies that occur because of terrorism, but there are facts that people should be aware of.

WT: Can we expect to see major changes in U.S. foreign policy after the 2008 presidential election?

JM: The Democrats are not that distinguishable from the Republicans, and there are increasingly small amounts of differences in opinion on the Iraq war.

*****

But where do Mueller's arguments leave us? What are U.S. citizens supposed to do about terror? Should we support the tens of billions of dollars spent each year on Homeland Security? Can I elect to withdraw tax money they take from me for Homeland Security and dump that money into new health-care spending instead? Who do I talk to about this, anyway?

As a member of the media writing about fear, I'd like to think that I'm attempting to inform readers and spark discussion, but maybe I'm just fueling Mueller's fear-fire.

In its "Lethal and Wet" article, the New York Times detailed specifics of what chemicals mix well with others to explode, and how and when those chemicals will explode. Wait a minute -- did a ton of readers just learn how to make a bomb from reading the New York Times? But the Times also published "Hezbollah's Other War," a piece that invites the reader to feel and learn from what's happening in Lebanon today, not just be scared, confused or intimidated by it.

So what's the difference between writing informative articles and giving away anarchist secrets? Didn't guys who published anarchist 'zines about how to build bombs and seize buildings used to get thrown in jail not too long ago? It's easy to get confused about what's responsible, kickass journalism, and what are perhaps fear tactics at play.

It's also difficult not to get scared shitless about terrorism, not to mention nuclear development programs in North Korea and Iran. I get on airplanes several times a year, and every time I do, I take a deep breath at takeoff and try to fall asleep right away. I figure I'd rather sleep through a catastrophe than be awake and freaking out while it happens.

Despite the tens of billions being dumped into Homeland Security annually, terrorists always seem to find new techniques that other folks haven't thought of yet. Like turning an airplane into a weapon. Like using a peroxide-based liquid solution that's flammable when sparked by small electronic devices.

I'd like to think that the 2008 presidential election holds promise for a new, positive movement away from what Mueller calls the "cosmic alarmism" perpetuated more and more by the Post-9/11 Bush administration. But no matter who wins, we'll still be fighting the War on Terror in places like Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Heathrow Airport, New York City, and Oklahoma City and on the desk of the Oval Office.

Ground Zero is all cleaned up, but we're still sweeping up this infinite, cosmic mess.

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