The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Americans’ fear of domestic terrorism belies reality.

Published on May 1, 2008

A few days after the 9/11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there might never be an “end date” in the “struggle” against terrorism, a point when it would be possible to say, “There, it’s all over with.” More than six and a half years later, his wisdom seems to have been vindicated, though perhaps not quite in the way he intended. At least in its domestic homeland security aspects, the so-called War on Terror shows clear signs of having developed into a popularly supported governmental perpetual-motion machine that could very well spin “till who laid the rails”, as Mayor Shinn so eloquently, if opaquely, puts it in The Music Man. Since none of the leading Democrats or Republicans running for president this year has managed to express any misgivings about this development, it is fair to assume that the “war” will amble on during whatever administration happens to follow the present one.

In some respects, ironically enough, the closest semblance to a notable opponent the enterprise has so far generated has been George W. Bush himself. The President has, of course, garnered great political benefit from the terrorism scare. He has consistently achieved his best ratings for handling the issue, and Karl Rove has been known to boast publicly about the political utility of fanning terrorist fears for the good of the Republican Party.11.
Note Senator Chuck Hagel’s remark on this point in The American Interest (March/April 2008).
It is no accident that the President managed to use the t-word at least twenty and as many as 36 times in each of his post-9/11 State of the Union addresses (as opposed to only once in January 2001). However, for a while there he opposed slapping together all sorts of disparate government agencies into the hopelessly unwieldy Department of Homeland Security. He even allowed that letting a responsible Dubai company manage the occasional American port was not necessarily the end of the world. Eventually, he buckled on both issues, and he will probably buckle again when determined, outraged and likely bipartisan opposition rises up against his tentative proposal to halve the amount of Federal money ladled out each year to localities to fight terrorism.

But at least there were some transitory glimmers. We may not even get that much from his successor in the White House. The reason is that terrorism and the attendant “war” thereon have become fully embedded in the public consciousness, with the effect that politicians and bureaucrats have become as wary of appearing soft on terrorism as they are about appearing soft on drugs, or as they once were about appearing soft on Communism.

Key to this dynamic is that the public apparently continues to remain unimpressed by several inconvenient facts. One such fact is that there have been no al-Qaeda attacks whatsoever in the United States since 2001. A second is that no true al-Qaeda cell (or scarcely anybody who might even be deemed to have a “connection” to the diabolical group) has been unearthed in this country. A third is that the homegrown “plotters” who have been apprehended, while perhaps potentially somewhat dangerous at least in a few cases, have mostly been either flaky or almost absurdly incompetent.

Beyond these facts are a few comparisons that ought to arrest attention. One is that the total number of people killed worldwide by genuine al-Qaeda types and assorted wannabes outside of war zones since 9/11 averages about 300 per year. That is certainly 300 a year too many, but that number is smaller than the yearly number of bathtub drownings in the United States. Moreover, unless the terrorists are able somehow massively to increase their capacities, the likelihood that a person living outside a war zone will perish at the hands of an international terrorist over an eighty-year period is about one in 80,000. By comparison, an American’s chance of dying in an auto accident over the same time interval is one in eighty.

Despite these facts, polls since 2001 do not demonstrate all that much of a decline in the percentage of the American public anticipating another terrorist attack, or expressing fear that they themselves might become a victim of it. The public has chosen to wallow in a false sense of insecurity, and it apparently plans to keep on doing so. Accordingly, it will presumably continue to demand that its leaders defer to its insecurities, and will uncritically approve as huge amounts of money are shelled out in a quixotic and mostly symbolic effort to assuage those insecurities.

This does not mean that most Americans spend a great deal of time obsessing over terrorism, or even paying all that much attention to it. Terrorism has for years now scored rather poorly on polls asking about the country’s most important problem. Then again, people don’t constantly think about motherhood either, but they would certainly not look kindly upon a politician or bureaucrat who was insufficiently sentimental about that venerable institution.

An apt comparison to this political-psychological circumstance would be the U.S. public’s concern about the threat once presented by domestic Communists. Impelled by several spectacular espionage cases and by a seemingly risky international environment, fears about the dangers presented by “the enemy within” became fully internalized in the years after World War II. In a famous public-opinion study conducted at the height of the McCarthy period in the mid-1950s, sociologist Samuel Stouffer found Americans quite willing to support laws that would prevent Communists from speaking and teaching, and that would remove their books from public libraries. Some 43 percent professed to believe that domestic Communists presented a great or very great danger to the United States. At the same time, however, when Stouffer asked more broadly about what their primary worries were, most respondents voiced concerns about personal matters. Apprehensions about domestic Communism (or about restrictions on civil liberties) rarely came up without prompting. There was, Stouffer concluded, no “national anxiety neurosis” over the issue.


That conclusion probably holds for present concerns about domestic terrorism, too—at least outside of cable news shows. True enough, there was a lot of pseudo-rational evasive behavior after the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, several studies conclude that more than 1,000 Americans died between September 11, 2001 and the end of that year because, out of fear of terrorism, they avoided airplanes in favor of much more dangerous automobiles. However, things eventually settled down, and most Americans easily get through the day now without spending a lot of time thinking about domestic terrorism. There has been no great exodus from Washington or New York, and few have gone to the trouble of stocking up on emergency supplies despite the persistent, nanny-like urgings of the Department of Homeland Security to do so.

What this means, apparently, is that most Americans are sensible enough to take media alarmism in stride. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, ABC’s Charles Gibson somberly intoned, “Putting your child on a school bus or driving across a bridge or just going to the mall—each of these things is a small act of courage—and peril is a part of everyday life.” Amazing then, isn’t it, how without spending much time thinking about it, Americans seem somehow to have been able to summon the bravery to carry out those perilous tasks. (If shopping malls have now become jammed with heroes, that is a condition, too, I imagine most Americans will be able to live with. I, on the other hand, am determined to keep my distance.)

Burdens of Political Courage

Our problems do not arise, then, from a national anxiety neurosis, but more from other consequences of the fear of terrorism. One is that when a consensus about a threat becomes internalized, it becomes politically unwise, even disastrous, to oppose it—or even to lend only half-hearted support to it. Another is that the internalized consensus creates a political atmosphere in which government and assorted pork-barrelers can fritter away considerable money and effort on questionable enterprises, as long as they appear somehow to be focused on dealing with the threat. In the present context, the magic phrase, “We don’t want to have another 9/11”, tends to end the discussion.

Once again, the parallel with the post-World War II Red Scare is instructive. In that atmosphere politicians scurried to support spending billions upon billions of dollars to surveil, screen and protect, and to spy on an ever-expanding array of individuals who had aroused suspicion for one reason or another. Organizations were infiltrated, phones were tapped (each tap can require the full-time services of a dozen agents and support personnel), letters were intercepted, people were followed, loyalty oaths were required, endless leads (almost all to nowhere) were pursued, defense plants were hardened, concentration camps for prospective emergency use were established (an idea desperately proposed by Senate liberals in 1950), and garbage was meticulously sifted in the hope of unearthing scraps of incriminating information.

[credit: Associated Press]

At the time, critics of this process focused almost entirely on the potential for civil liberties violations. This is a worthy concern, but hardly the only one. As far as I know, at no point during the Cold War did anyone say: “Yes, many domestic Communists adhere to a foreign ideology that ultimately has as its goal the destruction of capitalism and democracy by violence if necessary, but they’re so pathetic they couldn’t subvert their way out of a wet paper bag. So why are we expending so much time, effort and treasure over this issue?” It is astounding to me that this plausible, if admittedly debatable, point of view seems never to have been publicly expressed by any politician, pundit, professor or editorialist (although some may have believed it privately). On Stouffer’s survey, only a lonely and obviously politically insignificant share of the population (about 2 percent) professed to believe that domestic Communists presented no danger at all.

Something similar is now happening in pursuit of the terrible, if vaporous, terrorist enemy within. Redirecting much of their effort from such unglamorous enterprises as dealing with organized crime and white-collar embezzlement (which, unlike domestic terrorism, have actually happened since 2001), agencies like the FBI have kept their primary focus on the terrorist threat. Like their predecessors during the quest to quash domestic Communism, they have dutifully and laboriously assembled masses of intelligence data and have pursued an endless array of leads. Almost all of this activity has led nowhere, but it will continue because, of course, no one wants to be the one whose neglect somehow led to “another 9/11.”

Criticisms of the Patriot Act and of the Bush Administration’s efforts to apprehend prospective terrorists focus almost entirely on concerns about civil liberties, worrying that the rights of innocent Americans might be trampled in the rush to pursue terrorists. This is a perfectly valid concern, but from time to time someone might wonder a bit in public about how much the quest to ferret out terrorists and to protect ourselves is costing, as well as about how meager the results have been. In their valuable recent book, Less Safe, Less Free (2007), David Cole and Jules Lobel ably detail and critique the process. As their title implies, they suggest that we are less safe in part because the FBI and other agencies have failed in their well-funded quest to uncover the enemy within. There’s an alternative explanation, however: They have not failed, and we are not less safe; investigators haven’t found much of anything because there isn’t much of anything to find.

We can also expect continued efforts to reduce the country’s “vulnerability” despite at least three confounding realities: There is an essentially infinite number of potential terrorist targets; the probability that any one of those targets will be hit by a terrorist attack is essentially zero; and inventive terrorists, should they ever actually show up, are free to redirect their attention from a target that might enjoy a degree of protection to one of many that don’t. Nonetheless, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this quixotic quest so far, and the process seems destined to continue or even accelerate, even though, as a senior economist at the Department of Homeland Security put it recently, “We really don’t know a whole lot about the overall costs and benefits of homeland security.”

To be sure, terrorist attacks certainly remain possible, and there is nothing wrong with trying to build resilience into our domestic security systems. But there are intelligent and reasonable ways to do this, ways that actually consider the risk vs. reward ratio of additional expenditures. And then there are the other paths that we seem to have been pursuing: No cost is too high! No risk is too small! Since when does it take political courage to defend a rational approach to public policy against an hysterical one?

Perpetual Emotion

The experience with domestic Communism suggests another likely consequence of the War on Terror: Once a threat becomes internalized, concern can linger for decades even if there is no evidence to support it. The anxiety becomes self-perpetuating.

In the two decades following the Stouffer survey, news about domestic Communism declined until it essentially vanished all together. In the mid-1950s, there were hundreds of articles in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature listed under the categories “Communism-U.S.” and “Communist Party-U.S.” In the mid-1970s, in stark contrast, there were scarcely any. This, of course, reflected the fact that domestic Communism wasn’t doing much of anything to garner attention. The Cold War continued but there were no dramatic court cases like the one concerning the State Department’s felonious document-transmitter, Alger Hiss, and his accuser Whittaker Chambers. There were no new atomic spy cases, like the ones involving Klaus Fuchs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which had so mesmerized the public in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In fact, despite huge anxieties about it at the time, there seem to have been no instances in which domestic Communists engaged in anything that could be considered espionage after 1950. Moreover, at no time did any domestic Communist ever commit anything that could be considered violence in support of the cause—this despite deep apprehensions at the time about that form of terrorism then dubbed “sabotage.” And as all significant terrorist violence within the United States since 2001 has taken place on television—most notably and persistently on Fox’s 24—the same was true about domestic Communist violence during the Cold War. FBI informant Herbert Philbrick’s 1952 confessional, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, “Communist”, Counterspy, at no point documents a single instance of Communist violence or planned violence. Nonetheless, violence became a central focus when his story was transmuted into a popular television series that ran from 1953 to 1957 (reportedly one of Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorites).

However, even though the domestic Communist “menace” had pretty much settled into well-deserved oblivion by the mid-1970s, surveys repeating the Stouffer questions at the time found that fully 30 percent of the public still considered domestic Communists a great or very great danger to the country. Those who found them to be of no danger had inched up only to about 10 percent.

Some have argued that unjustified fears (or “hysteria”) about the Communist enemy within was created by the media, and some now say the same thing about apprehensions of the terrorist enemy within. But the fear of domestic Communism persisted long after the press had become thoroughly bored with the issue. This suggests that, while the media may exacerbate fears about perceived threats, they do not create them. That is, fears often have an independent source, and then take on a fictional life of their own.

Something similar may have happened with the “war on drugs.” Over the last few decades, the drug evil has so impressed itself on the American public that the issue can scarcely be brought up for public discussion. Drug abuse used to be a big public concern—Ronald Reagan latched on to it, and George H.W. Bush pushed it further, particularly after it soared into public anxiety during the first year of his presidency. Somewhere along the line it became a politically untouchable issue. Certainly, neither Bill Clinton nor Bush the younger were tempted to tinker with the policy, much less re-examine it. In the meantime, the drug “war” has picked up its own political constituency: In California, for example, the powerful prison guard lobby takes the lead.

One could, of course, suggest that the long and costly drug “war” has pretty much been a failure. After all, drug use has hardly plummeted, and strenuous efforts to interdict supplies have not notably inflated street prices. But that discussion, considered by many to be political poison, never really happens, so the drug war and its attendant expenditures continue to ramble inexorably and consensually onward. This is true despite the fact that the so-called war is severely hampering efforts to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan by seeking to cut off that struggling country’s only significant source of earned revenue.

Perspectives on terror, now thoroughly internalized, seem likely to take on a similarly unexamined, self-perpetuating trajectory. Moreover, Communism and the alleged threat presented by Japanese-Americans during World War II were capable of dying out entirely, but terrorism, like drugs, will always be with us. We could be in for a very long siege indeed.

This conclusion is suggested, as well, by the fact that routine fears and knee-jerk concerns continue despite a notable decline in the urgency of official warnings. Interested public officials have occasionally attempted to jigger things with various alarms, raising terror alerts from time to time, warning against “complacency”, assuring all and sundry that the “war” must continue (and related budgets increase) because…well, because we have to do everything possible to prevent another 9/11. However, we have been subjected to only a few warnings lately.

Early last year, for example, former CIA Director George Tenet revealed on CBS’s 60 Minutes that his “operational intuition” was telling him that al-Qaeda had infiltrated a second or third wave into the United States, though he added with uncharacteristic modesty, “Can I prove it to you? No.” And Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff informed us a few months later that his “gut” was telling him that there would be an attack during the summer. Apparently, it was only gas; nothing happened.

What Chertoff’s gut is telling him these days, as far as I know, has gone unrecorded, even on the Homeland Security website, where the organization really might, as a public service, use some of its ever-escalating funds to publish routine updates—perhaps on a daily gut-o-meter. Homeland Security spokesmen might also explain why airport security, elevated to the “orange” level after an airline plot in another hemisphere was rolled up two years ago, remains at that level today when the extra security required by the higher rating can cost an individual airport, and therefore passengers, $100,000 per day.

But spooky misgivings inspired by guts and intuition are nothing compared to the colorful and unqualified fire-and-brimstone warnings issued by public officials in the past. In 2002, Tenet assured us without even a wisp of equivocation that al-Qaeda was “reconstituted”, “planning in multi-theaters”, and “coming after us.” The next year, Chertoff’s predecessor at Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, divined that “extremists abroad are anticipating near-term attacks that they believe will either rival or exceed” those of 2001. And in 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft, with FBI Director Robert Mueller at his side, announced that “credible intelligence from multiple sources indicates that al-Qaeda plans to attempt an attack on the United States in the next few months”, that its “specific intention” was to hit us “hard”, and that the “arrangements” for that attack were already 90 percent complete. (Oddly enough, Ashcroft doesn’t mention this memorable headline-grabbing episode in Never Again, his 2006 memoir of the period.)

Director Mueller himself has mellowed quite a bit over time. In 2003, he assured us that, although his agency had yet to actually identify even a single al-Qaeda cell in the United States, such unidentified (or imagined) entities nonetheless presented “the greatest threat”, had “developed a support infrastructure” in the country, and had achieved “the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the United States with little warning.” At the time, intelligence reports were asserting—which is really to say guessing—that the number of trained al-Qaeda operatives in the United States was between 2,000 and 5,000, and FBI officials were informing rapt reporters that cells were “embedded in most U.S. cities with sizable Islamic communities”, usually in the “run-down sections”, that they were “up and active”, and that electronic intercepts had found some to be “talking to each other.” In 2005, at a time when the FBI admitted it still had been unable to unearth a single true al-Qaeda cell, Mueller continued his dire I-think-therefore-they-are projections: “I remain very concerned about what we are not seeing”, he ominously ruminated. But in testimony last year, Mueller’s chief rallying cry had been reduced to a comparatively bland, “We believe al-Qaeda is still seeking to infiltrate operatives into the U.S. from overseas.”

Notably, even a specific (and lone) effort on the part of an official to dampen terrorism fears has had no noticeable impact on public perceptions. Last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg actually went so far as to urge people to “get a life”, pointing out that “you have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.” It is possible, however, that Bloomberg’s glancing brush with reality (which, most interestingly, does not seem to have hurt him politically) was undercut by the fact that his city expends huge resources chasing after terrorists while routinely engaging in some of the most pointless security theater on the planet. For example, New York often extracts police officers from their duties to have them idle around at a sampling of the city’s thousands of subway entrances, blandly watching as millions of people wearing backpacks or carrying parcels descend into the system throughout the city. It is also fond of trumpeting the fact that thousands of people each year call the city’s counterterrorism hotline (8,999 in 2006 and more than 13,473 in 2007), while neglecting to mention that not a single one of these calls has yet led to a terrorism arrest.

Ironies of Fear

H.L. Mencken once declared that “the whole aim of practical politics” is “to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” There is nothing imaginary about al-Qaeda, of course, though some of the proclaimed official sightings of the group in the United States do have an Elvis-like quality to them. But the American public has retained much of its sense of alarm about internal attacks despite the fact that the al-Qaeda hobgoblin hasn’t actually carried any out for nearly seven years. And the public has retained its fear even when politicians and public officials, however belatedly, temper their scary and at times outright irresponsible bellowings.

All this may help to explain why there have been no al-Qaeda attacks in the United States for so many years, contrary to almost all anticipations. Perhaps the group’s goal is not to destroy the United States with explosions, but to have the Americans destroy themselves by wallowing in fear and by engaging in counterproductive policy overreaction. Thus, shortly after 9/11, Osama bin Laden happily crowed that “America is full of fear, from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that.” And in 2004 he proclaimed his policy to be “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy”, noting with consummate glee that, “It is easy for us to provoke and bait. . . . All that we have to do is . . . raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses.” The 9/11 attacks, he calculated, cost only $500,000 to carry out, “while the attack and its aftermath inflicted a cost of more than $500 billion on the United States.”

There may be some danger that the fear and policy overreaction al-Qaeda finds so gratifying may actually have the perverse effect of tempting them into further efforts within the country. If it is so easy to make the Americans go crazy and harm themselves economically, and at such bargain basement prices, why not do more of it? American defenses may have improved since 9/11, but no one would maintain they are so effective as to prevent a persistent, devoted and clever group of conspirators from being able to accomplish limited feats.

The ultimate nightmare of American scaremongers, setting off an atomic bomb, is well beyond al-Qaeda’s capacities and very likely always will be, but to be impressive, terrorism doesn’t have to be carried out at that level. Al-Qaeda or likeminded franchise affiliates need only infiltrate the country or locally recruit a handful of operatives to shoot up a few fast-food restaurants, set off a few forest fires, or explode a few small bombs in buses, shopping centers or highway overpasses. Look at what just two semi-sane “snipers” were able to do to the Washington, DC area in the summer of 2002.

If al-Qaeda remains capable of carrying out attacks of at least that magnitude, it must be that its leaders lack the intent to do so. There may be a number of reasons for this, but one might be that they see little need to stir the pot further because fear levels remain high and because the United States, no matter which party is in the White House and despite the Iraq experience, can probably be counted upon to lash out counterproductively in any case. It was the “experienced” and judicious Hillary Clinton, after all, who last year declared that Iran must be prevented from getting a nuclear weapon “at all costs.” As Napoleon put it, “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

Accordingly, since Americans and their policymakers continue to fear and overreact so predictably, al-Qaeda may continue to confine its pot-stirring to ominous verbal threats—all of which are readily embraced with rapt seriousness by its distant enemy. If this perspective is correct, such cheap talk would constitute tactically useful lies, but bin Laden clearly has had no reticence about fictions in the service of terror. As America invaded Afghanistan in 2001, for example, he told a visiting Pakistani journalist that al-Qaeda possessed nuclear weapons, a claim that was either a blatant lie or a self-gratifying fantasy. He may have been indulging that same proclivity when he spouted in 2002 that “the youth of Islam are preparing things that will fill your hearts with terror”, or four years later that “operations are under preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once they are finished, God willing.” (On the other hand, maybe there have been no attacks simply because God has been unwilling.)

An irony here, I suppose, is that if we were to come to our senses and calm down, al-Qaeda might conceivably come to feel obligated to attack again in order to restock the American reservoir of insecurity. But there isn’t much danger of official calm. Even without further terrorist attacks (and for that matter, even without Osama bin Laden), the “war on terror” seems likely to continue to grind on for a long time. Seven years after Cheney’s declaration, there is no foreseeable time when we will be able to bring ourselves to declare it “all over with.”

Note Senator Chuck Hagel’s remark on this point in The American Interest (March/April 2008).

John Mueller is Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies and professor of political science at Ohio State University. His most recent book, Overblown, deals with exaggerations of national security threats, particularly terrorism.