Tuesday, July 8, 2008

a war on little threat

Glenn Loury makes the case that we should declare victory in the war on terror. You can contrast that with James Kirchick's own recent appearance on Bloggingheads.tv, his first, I believe.

Look. 9/11 was a dramatic and incredibly painful event. Irrationality was understandable in the days following an attack. But a long time has gone by and the time when irrationality was excusable has passed. Kirchick is one of these people who seems to operate perpetually in that immediately-post-9/11 mindset, who hasn't apparently altered his thinking about the world evenw with all the evidence that has presented itself in the nearly 7 years that have passed.

These are two different claims:

1. 9/11 was a tragic and destructive crime that killed thousands of people and revealed that the United States is vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

2. 9/11 proves that there is a large and sophisticated networks of terrorists who are determined to and capable of inflicting repeated and massive damage on the United States and its people.

What is still strange to me is how absolutely everyone simply accepted the notion that the world was filled with terrorist hell-bent on our destruction, despite a lack of any evidence about specific claims as such. Why did everyone suddenly "know" that the number of anti-American terrorists in the world was legion? We knew fairly soon that 9/11 took a proportionally very small number of people to pull off. Why did people suddenly decide that the United States was certainly filled with all of these sleeper cells, just waiting to strike? As far as I can find, there was never any evidence whatsoever about any single sleeper cell operating in the country.

It's time to be rational. And rationality demands we acknowledge that the physical threat of terrorism to our country is quite low, and that the physical threat to the average individual American is functionally zero. We have had by an honest definition zero terrorist attacks on America since 9/11. We have had by dishonest definitions (like those that include the DC snipers as terrorists and their victims the victims of terrorists) a handful of attacks with victims of less than a couple dozen. This is not a great threat, though any intentional death by violence is tragic and criminal.

As it stands, you are more likely to die drowning in a bathtub than being killed by a terrorist. You are more likely to be stung by death by bees, mauled by dogs or killed by a falling piece of furniture. More people are killed every month by car accidents than were killed on September 11th. If an attack the magnitude of September 11th occurred once a year, terrorism would still not be among the 20 top causes of death in this country.

What's more, these are not existential threats. Our national sovereignty was not imperiled by September 11th, the way it was in the War of 1812 and perhaps was in World War II. There was no threat that our way of life was going to be unalterably lost. Nuclear war is an existential threat; it threatens not only our country but the human way of life as we know it. I'm certainly not the first to point out that by the fourth plane, mere hours after the first plane hit, the terrorists most powerful weapon, surprise, had been largely erased-- erased enough for United 93 to not kill anyone except its passengers and crew.

I understand the terrible cost of human life of September 11th. I abhor terrorism and those who practice it. The threat is not zero; there is some physical threat to some very small groups of people at seemingly random times in certain high-likelihood areas. But the threat is not something that should preoccupy people in their day to day life, just like the threat of drowning in a bathtub shouldn't. It's possible the threat of terrorism could suddenly skyrocket. But so could the threat of bathtub drownings. And in each, I would require compelling evidence to believe that this skyrocketing was going to happen.

Sadly, we do more than believe in an irrational, unproven threat of terrorism. We have sacrificed a large part of our national identity in our belief. We've sacrificed habeas corpus, due process, and discretion in foreign policy. We've sacrificed rule of law, rights to privacy, and rights of the accused. We've tortured and we've disappeared people and we launched aggressive wars and we've behaved, in general, like the terrible dictatorships we've always denounced. And for what?

For what?


  1. A little late in commenting here, lol, but I just wanted to say; I work at a DC-area public policy think tank (while trying to slowly finish a Ph.D in my spare time), and we have a lot of DHS contracts, which produce a lot of reports, all of which I read (I'm an editor); and allow me to assure you ... unless ALL of these people are lying, all of the terrorism experts and people who research this for a living, then there is a truly mind-boggling danger of a catastrophic terrorist attack. We really have gotten very lucky for the last seven years.


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