In one of his last posts for Salon before he moves to The Guardian today, Glenn Greenwald takes on with his trademark comprehensiveness the sham, self-serving ‘terrorism expert’ industry, something that Ken Silverstein has also written about for Harper’s.
There is a huge amount of money that is flowing into the pockets of those who can keep people’s fears of terrorism alive. These people are in competition with each other to get their hands on this money and this generates a rhetorical arms race in which the person who can generate the scariest scenario, the “Oh my god, we’re all going to die if we don’t take the (very expensive) action I recommend”, is the winner.
As Greenwald says:
These “terrorism experts” form an incredibly incestuous, mutually admiring little clique in and around Washington. They’re employed at think tanks, academic institutions, and media outlets. They can and do have mildly different political ideologies — some are more Republican, some are more Democratic — but, as usual for D.C. cliques, ostensible differences in political views are totally inconsequential when placed next to their common group identity and career interest: namely, sustaining the myth of the Grave Threat of Islamic Terror in order to justify their fear-based careers, the relevance of their circle, and their alleged “expertise.” Like all adolescent, insular cliques, they defend one another reflexively whenever a fellow member is attacked, closing ranks with astonishing speed and loyalty; they take substantive criticisms very personally as attacks on their “friends,” because a criticism of the genre and any member in good standing of this fiefdom is a threat to their collective interests.
He gloomily sees no end to this in the near future, as each event is hyped for its potential threat.
As Stephen Walt writes, the recently concluded Olympic games was another good example of how fears of a terrorist attack generated an over-wrought response. He also points to a detailed study The Terrorism Delusion: America’s Overwrought Response to September 11 by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart that says that the fear of terrorism has replaced the fear of communism as an ever-present existential threat, and since politicians especially do not want the label of being ‘soft on terrorism’ placed on them, spending on the so-called terrorist threat has exploded way out of proportion to the actual risk.
Mueller and Stewart say they studied “fifty cases of Islamist extremist terrorism that have come to light since the September 11 attacks, whether based in the United States or abroad, in which the United States was, or apparently was, targeted. These cases make up (or generate) the chief terrorism fear for Americans.” What is interesting is to compare the sweeping and scary statements concerning them put out by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with what the people who analyzed each case say.
The DHS says of them, “The number and high profile of international and domestic terrorist attacks and disrupted plots during the last two decades underscore the determination and persistence of terrorist organizations. Terrorists have proven to be relentless, patient, opportunistic, and flexible, learning from experience and modifying tactics and tar- gets to exploit perceived vulnerabilities and avoid observed strengths.”
But Mueller and Stewart say that the people who analyzed each of those case studies in depth describe the perpetrators in these words: “In sharp contrast, the authors of the case studies, with remarkably few exceptions, describe their subjects with such words as incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, and foolish. And in nearly all of the cases where an operative from the police or from the Federal Bureau of Investigation was at work (almost half of the total), the most appropriate descriptor would be “gullible.”
The authors do a cost-benefit analysis of the counter-terrorism program.
That is, for enhanced U.S. domestic expenditures on homeland security to be deemed cost effective under a set of assumptions that substantially biases the consideration toward finding them cost effective, they would have had to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year. That would be about one a day. This calculation offers something of an illustrative estimate of the cost consequences of the counterterrorism delusion.
We, of course, had nothing like that. In fact, as the Harper’s Index for August 2012 points out, in 2010 we had more people killed by falling televisions (16) than by terrorist attacks (15). But this overheated rhetoric from the government and the terrorism industry has had the desired effect.
In the process, suggests Glenn Carle, a twenty-three-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency where he was deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats, Americans have become “victims of delusion,” displaying a quality defined as “a persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence.” This condition shows no sign of abating as trillions of dollars have been expended and tens of thousands of lives have been snuffed out in distant wars in a frantic, ill-conceived effort to react to an event that, however tragic and dramatic in the first instance, should have been seen, at least after a few years had passed, to be of limited significance.
Of course, the promoters and beneficiaries of the terrorism boondoggle will say that the reason we have not had any major terrorist attacks or anything close to one is because of these preventative measures. This is of course the kind of argument parodied in The Simpsons in which the city of Springfield responds to the appearance of a single bear by creating an expensive Bear Patrol to keep the streets safe. Homer Simpson then has this exchange with his daughter Lisa:
Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
I want to emphasize that I think it perfectly likely that there are people plotting attacks against the US. Can we expect otherwise when the US is raining death on so many countries, killing so many innocent people in the process? And no doubt the occasional plan here or there will be successful. But countries all over the world deal with such threats on a routine basis and take them in their stride without freaking out to the extent that occurs in the US.
We are all Homer Simpsons now.