Terror Theology

I very much like the way Clark Kent Ervin characterizes as “believers” those who, like him, hold that terrorism presents an existential threat to the United States, that terrorists only have to succeed once, that the Big One is going to happen any day now, and that we are vulnerable, vulnerable, vulnerable. As the application of the word suggests, terrorism doomsaying seems now to have moved solidly from the merely alarmist to the truly theological (and far from the sensible, careful policy analysis advocated by Veronique de Rugy).

This was brought home to me in a personal way while watching ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulus” on September 10. At the show’s beginning, Stephanopoulus read a passage from an article I had published in the current Foreign Affairs in which I modestly proposed that “the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist reminiscent of those inspired by images of the twenty-foot tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the twenty-foot tall Communists at various points in the Cold War may have been overblown. The massive and expensive security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.” He then asked one of his guests, Thomas Kean, co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, whether that was “heresy,” and Governor Kean replied, “Yeah, I think so because, you know, these people do exist.”

I was criticized, then, not for committing an error of fact or analysis, but for committing heresy: going against received orthodoxy. And my suggestion that the terrorist threat may have been exaggerated was deftly caricatured to suggest I thought it didn’t exist.

For those who find “existential” to be insufficiently theological, many who embrace the received orthodoxy are quick to apply such terms as “apocalyptic” and to predict “Armageddon” to be just over the horizon. Not far off are those, nicely scored by Timothy Natali in his contribution, who imagine the campaign to be a battle for civilization, a long war, a generational conflict, or (depending on how the Cold War is coded) World War III or World War IV. That’s pretty elevated thinking when the total number of people worldwide who have been killed by Muslim extremists outside war zones since 2001 has been smaller than the number of Americans who have drown in bathtubs over the same interval. Those deaths are tragic, outrageous, and deeply regrettable of course, but their numbers do not suggest that the enemy, however vicious, presents a threat of cosmic or biblical proportions.

And for the theologians, the existence of terrorists has, like the existence of God, become an unfalsifiable proposition. Ervin dismisses the fact that the FBI has been unable to find a single true terrorist cell in the United States after years of well-funded effort as conclusive evidence of the agency’s incompetence, even though policing agencies in other countries have somehow been able to roll up quite a few bad guys.

But perhaps theology has been in this from the beginning. Shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush announced that his mission was now to “rid the world of evil,” a remarkable declaration from a man who had entered office advocating a “humble” foreign policy. The call seems to have stirred no questioning in the press at the time, except maybe for a comment in a New Orleans Times Picayune editorial humbly suggesting that “perhaps the president over promised.”

Theology is seen as well in routine incantations about how the devil is everywhere. The Department of Homeland Security officially proclaims on page 1 of its defining manifesto that “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.” And a day after I had been outed as a heretic, ABC News concluded its fifth anniversary “Where Things Stand” assessment by having Charles Gibson intone, “Now, 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.” Now I know why I stay away from malls: too many heroes.

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.