The terrorism industry and overblown threats

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.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
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.


  1. rempetis says

    That Glenn Greenwald article was interesting, i didn’t know very much about the ‘terrorism expert’ industry.

    As far as i can tell what is not often said is what you got around to saying on your last paragraph. The question is: How can you stop terrorism if you fuel hate with supposedly preventative wars? Someone who sees his whole town, many of his friends and family members killed by American bombs etc isn’t likely to want to fight back? Meh.

  2. nichrome says

    @ rempetis –

    Re: your question…

    The Terrorism Industrial Complex (an offshoot of the Military Industrial Complex) does not want to stop terrorism – they want to profit from it as long as possible.

  3. John Landers says

    What’s worse, in my mind, is the complete lack of trust we have for the people around us. We all walk around with a paranoid view as though we’ll be the next victim and every person around us is a potential suspect in that attack. As an inherently social creature, it’s interesting to watch people move towards this anti-social, paranoid-bubble style of life.

    It’s also incredibly sad.

  4. rempetis says

    The Terrorism Industrial Complex (an offshoot of the Military Industrial Complex) does not want to stop terrorism – they want to profit from it as long as possible.

    Yeah, that’s sadly how things work.

    I think that this is the case with lot’s of problems in societies, the people who advocate against them have more interest in their perpetuation so they’re really doing nothing to resolve them.

  5. lordshipmayhem says

    The U.S. isn’t the only nation categorizing threats: John Cleese alerts us to threat categories in 2012 Europe

    The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.” Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to “A Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

    The Scots have raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s get the Bastards.” They don’t have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

    The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.” The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.” The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralysing the country’s military capability.

    Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.” Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

    The Germans have increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbour” and “Lose.”

    Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

    The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

    Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from “No worries” to “She’ll be alright, Mate.” Two more escalation levels remain: “Crikey! I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!” and “The barbie is cancelled.” So far no situation has ever warranted use of the last final escalation level.

  6. lochaber says

    lordshipmayhem> thats awesome.

    A while back, I was in the military, and they had this program where we would order these silly ‘courses’ on military-appropriate subjects, and then proceed to take unsupervised mail-in multiple choice tests that would give us points towards our next promotion (max of 5ish or so per pay-grade, I forget what each individual one was worth, but all-together they didn’t rival the basics of figuring out which end of the rifle to point towards the targets on they (supposedly annual) range qoals…)

    Anyways, we had a prescribed set we were supposed to order/complete, and since wasn’t likely to get promoted, nobody really paid attention to what I was doing, and I did ones I thought were interesting.

    did one on ‘counter guerrilla warfare'(or something along those lines – it was a while ago…), I’m guessing it was written during the usa-viet-nam war era.

    I read it before the 9-11 stuff went down, and thought it was one of the better mailorder-booktaught-militarycourse type dealies available. it was written pretty well – it got the ideas across, was a fairly amusing and humorous read (if not exactly sensitive…), and I felt it had a lot of useful information.

    a couple of concepts that struck me as important were the idea of ‘war’ as a continuum, with conventional (we all line up and shoot the hell out of each other) warfare at one end, and the other end passing through things like guerrilla warfare (hide, run away, and give your supply lines hell when we can) on the other end, extending to terrorism (I can’t explain it properly, but basically: we have no resources/ability to do anything about the enemy, so we’ll bomb a civilian target, scare the hell out of you, and let your reactions do more damage then we could ever hope to)

    the other major thing was that one of the possible goals of guerrilla warfare was to take some action against the opponent, then hide in the local villages/jungle/whatever, causing the opponent to crackdown on the locals, which would result in local support for your cause (or at least animosity against the invaders, which is kinda close enough…)

    but, yeah. after 9/11, I was pretty much dismissive of any of the new security measures- anyone who wants to harm the us already succeeded. they succeeded so hard,they don’t need to do anything for another decade or two, we (as a country, many of us individuals objected but, well…) voluntarily gave up a large portion of our constitutional rights.

    I find it pretty saddening… land of the free, home of the brave, hide under your bed, all that.


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