Increasing the risk of danger by supposedly reducing it

The events of September 11, 2001 scared the daylights out of the American public. Apart from spawning numerous deadly and endless wars around the globe that have resulted in the number of deaths being many times the original figure of 3,000, it has also spawned a mindset that seems to think that the US government has a duty to create a society where there is zero risk from dying from a terrorist attack.

This mentality has been used to justify military actions around the globe and absurd levels of militarization of civil society and invasions of privacy, all ostensibly in pursuit of creating a zero-risk society. This aggression abroad and curtailment of civil liberties at home is also driven by the US’s geopolitical ambitions and those who financially benefit from such measures but the fear of terrorism and the purported goal of eliminating all terrorist threats undoubtedly helps to sell the measures to the public at home.

But people have the tendency to normalize their lives. Having lived through extended times of civil war and insurgencies myself, I know that you just reset your mindset to the new normal and continue your life because that is the only way to keep your sanity. As a result, those whose goal is to sustain fear have to manufacture new threats in order to keep people from adjusting.

The sudden emergence of the so-called Khorasan group as the new big existential threat is a good example of this. Is a real menace? Or just another scary boogeyman? Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain have their suspicions.

As the Obama Administration prepared to bomb Syria without congressional or U.N. authorization, it faced two problems. The first was the difficulty of sustaining public support for a new years-long war against ISIS, a group that clearly posed no imminent threat to the “homeland.” A second was the lack of legal justification for launching a new bombing campaign with no viable claim of self-defense or U.N. approval.

The solution to both problems was found in the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded “The Khorasan Group.” After spending weeks depicting ISIS as an unprecedented threat — too radical even for Al Qaeda! — administration officials suddenly began spoon-feeding their favorite media organizations and national security journalists tales of a secret group that was even scarier and more threatening than ISIS, one that posed a direct and immediate threat to the American Homeland. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore.

But to be an effective scare tactic, facing even the supposedly most dangerous foes abroad is not enough. They also have to pose a threat to people at home. Since it would be absurd to suggest that Khorasan, ISIS/ISIL or now the merely third place al Qaeda (does anyone even remember the Taliban?) would launch an armed invasion of the US, it has to be suggested that they are devious and ingenious people capable of sophisticated and subtle means of attack.

Perhaps in no area is this more pronounced that in airline travel where the latest scare is about the possibility of explosives in toothpaste tubes or incendiary clothing. Jason Edward Harrington, who used to work in airline security, says that it is perfectly reasonable to laugh at the measures being taken to supposedly prevent attacks on planes.

Now that the global aviation system has been menaced by a shoe bomber, an underwear bomber, a hypothetical “Frankenbomber” and even ecologically friendly bombers, pretty much any western government could conceivably spout the results of a terror plot-generating algorithm and successfully sell it to the public as casus belli:

Common item + bomb + plot = justified military action and hassle at airports. Deodorant bomb plot? Sure, why the hell not? Sounds scary. Send in the drones, confiscate all the Old Spice.

So what should we, the general public, do when faced with one outlandish terror threat after another?

Having worked for the Transportation Security Administration for six years, I actually think laughter is one appropriate response. It’s hard not to see the funny facets of a never-ending campaign against a nebulous enemy (Axis of Evil a decade ago, Network of Death today) in which you are issued a terror intelligence memorandum detailing the standard operating procedure for the confiscation of cupcakes. (“Cupcakes have got to have a reasonable level of icing to be allowed onto a plane,” one TSA manager advised us.)

My former co-workers and I are not the only ones who found some of this stuff funny. In 2012, the international relations scholar Charlotte Heath-Kelly argued in a paper in the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research that the War on Terror can be viewed as the lovechild of Franz Kafka and Monty Python as much as that of any vice president and foreign minister.

“The War on Terror undermines itself by narrating a liminal space where its claims of security appear ridiculous,” Heath-Kelly writes. “A failure to laugh consolidates the War on Terror discourse and the joke it is playing on us by taking it seriously.”

But while all the overhyping of threats may be laughable, the way we are reacting to them has deadly consequences.

I believe that it’s healthy to openly ridicule politically expedient, overblown terror threats such as this Khorasan group – that known unknowns, fashion menaces, underwear bombers and other political hobgoblins should be feared about as much, if not less, than a cab ride to the airport. But there is at least one deadly serious aspect to odd new turns and mysterious enemies in the War on Terror: real people die when missiles go flying in retaliation for absurd, hypothetical threats, and from the rubble of those missile strikes rise new waves of anti-western sentiment. The aspirations of the terrorists we bomb into existence may be grounded in gritty realism, as opposed to slapstick comedy.

And that may turn out to be no laughing matter.

The sad thing is that you can never be wrong by warning about the threats of terrorist attacks. As Harrington says, those who play on such fears promote actions that are likely to actually increase the chances of such attacks. So when the inevitable happens, the fear mongers will feel validated. It is a no-lose proposition for doomsayers.


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