chklittle2.jpgOverblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them,” by John E. Mueller

False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear,” by Dr. Marc Siegel

Panicology,” by Simon Briscoe and Hugh Aldersey-Williams

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” by Barry Glassner

Trapped in the War on Terror,” by Ian S. Lustick

These are five books with a common theme:

1. Generally, people are lousy at intelligently evaluating and rationally responding to threats, and

2. Specifically, we have been spooked into a war on terror that is an exercise in futility driven by opportunism (the media and the defense industry) and demagoguery (politicians and talking heads).

Perspective: As tragic as 9/11 was, more Americans die every month on our highways.

Yes, it is more familiar risk and, yes, in some respects it is a self-chosen risk (though I doubt that anyone chooses to be hit by a drunk driver and alcohol is a factor in one-third of all fatal auto accidents). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reports that cigarettes kill a quarter of a million Americans a year and now obesity is creeping up to like numbers. Suicide claims tens of thousands Americans a year and, sadly, the number of American service personnel lost in Iraq and Afghanistan has long surpassed the number lost on 9/11.

Yet these numbers, as great as they are, do not inflame us, do not call us to action, do not motivate us to create change.

In “Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them,” Mueller makes the following points:

— Considered in any reasonable context, terrorism just doesn’t do much damage (nine times as many Americans are struck by lightning in the average year as are killed by terrorists).

— Even where terrorism has horrendous results, it tends to be one-off events (despite six years of anxiety, there has not been another terrorist attack in the U.S. at all, let alone one on the scale of 9/11).

— Catastrophic events are by their nature hard to repeat (never again will a plane full of unsuspecting passengers sit and allow unarmed men to fly them to their deaths without intervening, since the assumption “we’ll be used as hostages so we’re safe for now” no longer holds).

— Terrorist actions tend to be counterproductive on almost every level anyway. Far from throwing New York into chaos, panic, and Hobbesian brutality, the direct and immediate result of 9/11 was the sudden blossoming of compassion, cooperation, and cohesion in the city on a completely unprecedented scale.

— The cost (both human and economic) of the “War on Terror” has been far greater than the cost of terrorist actions themselves.

— The “War on Terror,” being as it is a war on an idea, is utterly unwinnable. There is no practical way of eradicating the possibility of individuals, for whatever reason, engaging in entirely destructive acts of violence. Like road fatalities (of which there are tens of thousands each year in the U.S.) the risk of terrorist attacks are a fact of life in built-up areas for which we should take reasonable, dispassionate, measures to minimize bearing in mind the opportunity costs of doing so. (1)

Mueller’s point is not that terrorism is not a threat, just not a very big one, and we exacerbate it and give it prestige when we respond militarily instead of treating it like an organized criminal enterprise. Indeed, the biggest source of fear/terror in the lives of Americans is not the actual perpetrators but the media/politicians seeming to get their sense of identity, their sense of importance, by talking about it constantly.

“The thousands of hungry mouths who comprise the ‘terrorism industry’ on the other hand – the politicians, civil servants, defense contractors, security analysts, and media commentators – each of whom is primarily interested in justifying his own existence or convincing us to open our wallets – each has a vested interest in persuading us we should be soiling rather than sleeping in our beds. Their statements, therefore, we should take with a pinch of salt. We acquiesce: we put up with speculative, unsourced, unattributed, and frequently credulous nonsense – we tolerate queues and being unnecessarily fondled at airports, hikes in tax rates, and restrictions on our civil liberties. John Mueller’s book sets out to provide us a reality check and ask, pointedly, why we are so easily prepared to do that.” (2)

Dr. Marc Siegel in “False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear,” postulates that fear mongering is often market driven, the cynical media slogans of if it bleeds it leads, if it smells it sells.

Chicken Little definitely appears to be riding the land again and unfortunately billions and billions (trillions?) of dollars are being spent by those who have fallen under his spell. What is even worse, we are allowing essential civil liberties to be chipped away, allowing our personal privacy to erode, allowing Big Brother to intrude daily, to listen in on our most intimate conversations. Promises are made that the government will keep our secrets sacrosanct, yet this is the same government that reveals that IRS records and passport files are regularly snooped on by curious and nosy civil servants.

I love my country, I do not always trust my government. It used to be that America was the good guys, the guys who wore the white hats. Only despots and dictators tortured people. Now Washington uses transparent sophistry to tap dance around the self-evident truth that we have, in some aspects, become the doers of the very evil we have long deplored. Our moral compass seems to have spun out of control. If we so readily abandon our principles we must not have held them very dear, and our claim to moral and ethical leadership becomes greatly tarnished.

I conclude with these sobering words from a founding father, Benjamin Franklin:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” (circa February 17, 1755 as part of his notes for a proposition at the Pennsylvania Assembly. See Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, p. 270.)


(1) Summary from Amazon review by O. Buxton of Highgate, U.K. dated 3/25/07

(2) Ibid.