I’d Rather Err on the Side of the Believers

Even those, like I , who strongly disagree with both his premises and his conclusions, must agree that John Mueller’s essay is provocative and worthy of serious discussion by homeland security experts and ordinary citizens alike. It represents a clear and cogent synopsis of one school of what I would argue are basically two schools of thought about the problem of homeland security.

The school to which Mueller belongs maintains that the threat of terrorism here at home is exaggerated, and, in our zeal to combat it, we have overreacted by doing more than is necessary to try to make ourselves more secure. I subscribe to the competing school of thought that maintains that, if anything, the threat of terrorism here at home is not taken seriously enough (Administration rhetoric to the contrary, notwithstanding) and, as a result, we are doing far less than we should be doing to combat it.

Only someone from the first school would have trouble understanding the meaning of the question, “Are we safer?” Anyone who believes that terrorism remains an existential threat and that our country is seriously under-prepared for another terrorist attack understands the question instinctively to mean, simply: (1) has the threat of terrorism here at home diminished since 9/11; and, if not, are we better able to deter, defend against, and recover from another terrorist attack if, God forbid, there should be one? With this commonsensical and, I would argue, obvious clarification of the question, the answer is not just no, but, manifestly no.

No less an authority on terrorists’ intentions and resolve than Osama bin Laden himself has repeatedly made clear since 9/11 than he and his followers remain not just interested in perpetrating another attack on our homeland, but absolutely determined to do so. To be sure, Al Qaeda’s ability to strike us again has been diminished somewhat by the Administration’s commendable efforts to kill or capture as many members and followers as possible, to deny them the safe sanctuary of Afghanistan (though, the resurgence of the Taliban there of late, the replacement of Afghanistan by Iraq as an emerging terrorist haven, and the return of Somalia to a fundamentalist base of operations are all big steps in the wrong direction), and to disrupt their funding and communications networks.

But, this is as much a bad news story as a good news story, for at least two reasons. First, if Al Qaeda has been weakened as a discrete, hierarchical, operational entity, localized terror cells inspired by Al Qaeda have, by all informed accounts, proliferated throughout the globe, including here at home. (If one actually reads the ABC News account of the secret 2005 FBI report that Mueller cites for the proposition that there really are no Al Qaeda cells in this country, it becomes clear that the piece really stands more for the far different proposition that the FBI cannot find any. I, for one, do not find it comforting that the nation’s chief counterterrorism agency questions its own competence.) Second, our invasion of Iraq and our unqualified support for Israel’s war in Lebanon against Hezbollah have had the admittedly unintended effect of creating legions of still more terrorists determined to strike American interests wherever they can.

And, as far as potential targets are considered, the recently foiled plot to blow up multiple jetliners bound for the United States highlights how vulnerable our aviation sector remains to another terror attack, five years after 9/11. (The notion that the plot was not all that serious, and the suggestion from some blogger-chemists that the liquids probably would not have detonated do not merit much refutation, it seems to me. Ramzi Yousef successfully tested liquid explosives in 1994, killing a man, as a precursor to the foiled 1995 “Operation Bojinka” plot that was eerily similar in conception to this plot.) If the good news is that the plot was foiled (by the British, by the way, not by us), the bad news is that we’ve spent more money and exerted greater efforts to protect the aviation sector than anything else in this country. Our land borders, seaports, mass transit systems, “critical” infrastructure like nuclear power and chemical plants, and “soft” targets like shopping malls and sports arenas are, to varying degrees, almost as vulnerable to terrorist penetration and attack today as they were five years ago.

That said, Mueller is right to stress that we cannot, and, therefore, should not, try to protect everything. Even the richest country in the history of the world does not have the resources to do so, and, even if our resources were unlimited, our imagination isn’t. And, as he points out, the number of targets is so large, the nature of intelligence is so inexact, and the odds are so stacked in the terrorists’ favor (homeland security defenders have to be perfect 100% of the time, while terrorists need to succeed only once), that any attempt to make ourselves absolutely invulnerable to terrorist attack is bound to fail.

But what conclusion should reasonable people draw from this? I submit that the conclusion should not be: because we can’t do everything, we should do nothing. Instead, we should do our very best to detect terrorist plots and plans and then to deter them by hardening to the maximum practicable degree those sectors and sites that are most at risk and that, if attacked, would have the greatest consequences in terms of death, injury, and economic damage.

If anything could be said to be even sillier than the notion that, since we can’t protect everything, we shouldn’t try very hard to protect anything, it is what might be called the “reductio ad statisticum” argument. It is undoubtedly true that Americans are far more likely to die from “bee stings, lightning, or accident-causing deer” than terrorism, but so what? At most, this should mean that individual Americans should go about their daily lives without being “terrorized” by the omnipresent threat of terrorism. Amen. But, it most emphatically should not be taken to mean that our government should stop worrying all that much about terrorism and start focusing its time, energy, and money on other things.

This statistical argument implicitly equates deaths from bee stings, lightning or close encounters with marauding deer with deaths from terrorism. But, a moment’s reflection should be more than sufficient to show why this is fallacious.

First of all, tragic as it may be, we instinctively feel less bad about someone’s dying from a bee sting than about someone’s dying from a terror attack. Why? Well, a bee sting is an act of nature, not an act of man. A bee, presumably anyway, does not intend to cause the death of whomever he stings. A bee does not, presumably, have an “agenda” when he stings someone. There is no intention to affect public policy, and no intention to terrorize or otherwise discomfort anyone other than the person stung. These distinctions account for why, though every single day, significantly more people die from car accidents or cancer than terrorism, any deaths any day from another terror attack here at home would surely engender bold face, round-the-clock headline news coverage, while a greater number of deaths on that day by car accidents, bee stings, or cancer would not. Furthermore, though we tend to take such deaths in stride, we still do everything we reasonably can to minimize deaths from car accidents (mandatory speed limits, seat belts, air bags, and kiddie car seats, for example), bee stings (sensible people don’t stick their heads or hands in bee hives!) and cancer (the FDA warning on cigarette packs, the ban on smoking in public places, the anti-smoking advertising campaign on TV, etc.). If we do everything we reasonably can to prevent deaths that, in the scheme of things, are far more natural and ordinary, shouldn’t we do everything we reasonably can do to prevent deaths by the unnatural and extraordinary means of terrorism?

Second, the statistical argument misses the fact that, though the chances of a terrorist attack are, indeed, relatively small, the consequences are larger than they would be if the same number of people were killed in some natural way or by means of “garden variety” murder. The economic toll of 9/11 amounted to billions of dollars. The psychic toll was incalculable. As Mueller points out, the impact on civil rights and civil liberties, which he rightly values highly, has likewise been huge. And, by showing that the world’s lone superpower can be brought low by 19 guys armed with box cutters, the success of the 9/11 plot can be said to have imperiled our national security by emboldening individual terrorists and nation states who previously regarded us as all but invulnerable.

Those who complain that we’re overdoing it on counterterrorism tend to be either libertarians or partisan cheerleaders for the Administration. But it seems to me that one can value civil rights and civil liberties (I do, and I emphatically agree with Mueller’s point that the NSA’s “call tracking” program that USA Today revealed a few months ago is not only violative of our civil rights and civil liberties, but also counterproductive by “piling still more hay on the intelligence haystack”) and still take reasonable steps to protect ourselves to the maximum practicable degree. And, it seems to me that one can be a Republican and a conservative and, therefore, otherwise agree with the Administration on at least some of the other issues of the day and applaud the steps that it has taken to combat terrorism, and still fault them for not doing even more to reduce the terror threat to as close to zero as possible. (After all, this description fits me.)

To sum it all up for me, the question of whether the threat of terrorism is exaggerated is a little like the question of whether there’s a God. No one can yet know the answer to either question for sure, but I’d rather err on the side of the believers. The downside of being wrong is so much smaller!

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Five years after 9/11, are we any safer? In the lead essay of this month’s Cato Unbound, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller offers a set of provocative reflections on what that question might mean. Along the way, Mueller argues that the terrorist threat to American lives is overblown, and that the attempt to protect ourselves against any possible attack is impossible, and a waste of taxpayer money. “It would seem to make more sense,” Mueller writes, “to substantially abandon the quixotic policy of seeking to make everything (or even a lot of stuff) safe, and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims.”

Response Essays

  • Clark Kent Ervin, Director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute, and author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack counts himself among those who “strongly disagrees with both [John Mueller’s] premises and his conclusions.” Ervin stresses al Qaeda’s repeated intention to again attack the United States, and the alleged proliferation of terror cells in the United States and abroad. Ervin takes issue with what he calls Mueller’s “argumentum ad statisticum”–comparing terrorist murder to accidental death–and maintains that in a context of uncertainty about future attacks, “I’d rather err on the side of the believers. The downside of being wrong is so much smaller!”

  • Veronique de Rugy, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent. “Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.” The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

  • Timothy Naftali, author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, argues that “the threat is getting wider without being deeper,” with new terror recruits failing to form “the kind of militaristic groups that would be needed to mount a serious military threat to the U.S. mainland.” Naftali argues that though the Bush administration deserves credit for weakening Al Qaeda, it has otherwise been “largely incompetent” in denying terrorists sanctuaries, and discouraging recruits to violent extremism. The main danger, Naftali contends, is that a terror group acquires a loose nuke, and the U.S. needs to attend more to this specific problem.