Threats Overblown

I would like strongly to associate myself with Timothy Naftali’s comment, “Misunderstanding the Threat.”

My book, Overblown, due out in November, focuses particularly on perceptions of the terrorist threat, arguing that, while the threat exists and is “real,” it has been systematically and very substantially exaggerated. However, the book also takes a look back at other threats that proved, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been much inflated.

Not all threats that could potentially have been seized upon have evoked anxiety and overreaction. For example, the American public and its leaders have remained remarkably calm about the potential damage that could be inflicted by the planet’s intersection with large meteors or comets, and (perhaps more pertinently) they do not seem to be exercised all that much by much advertised dangers stemming from global warming or genetically modified food. But it does appear that every foreign policy threat in the last several decades that has come to be accepted as significant has then eventually been unwisely, even absurdly, exaggerated.

Unpleasant surprises very frequently, though not always, lead to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise. First, the surprise is treated not as an aberration, but rather as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous and threatening, will remain so, and will become worse, an exercise that might be called “massive extrapolation.” And second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat without a great deal of thought about alternative policies including and especially ones that might advocate simply letting it be.

Like Naftali, it seems to me that the United States persistently and often vastly inflated both the capacity of international Communism to carry out its threatening revolutionary goals and its willingness to accept risk to do so. Moreover, the policies designed to deal with the threat turned out to be overly militaristic, were far too expensive, and, ultimately, were probably mostly unnecessary. Cold War anxieties about the capacity of the enemies within domestic Communists and their sympathizers also proved to be much exaggerated.[1]

Other threats that proved to be inflated during the Cold War period included the widespread, but happily unfulfilled, fears about strategic nuclear war, some of them, like the pronouncements of many today about terrorism, apocalyptic in nature. There were also unwise preoccupations about, and overreactions to, essentially minor acts of terrorism (mostly hostage-taking) against Americans in distant lands and to the antics of a shifting set of devils du jour—third-rate egomaniacal dictators in third world counties (Nasser, Sukarno, Castro, Khomeini, etc.)—who soon deservedly faded into history’s dustbin. There was also the unjustified in retrospect, even rather bizarre, anxieties stimulated by the challenge presented by an economically resurgent Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

After the Cold War, problems previously considered minor were elevated into a position of prominence when the big one, the challenge presented by international Communism, disappeared. There were, for example, the misguided anxieties about how international affairs had become so “complex” and about the spread of ethnic warfare. There was a tendency to become preoccupied with a newly fabricated category of “rogue states,” countries with unpleasant regimes which present little actual threat, even less than did the devils du jour of the Cold War era.[2]

It does not automatically and necessarily follow, of course, that because foreign policy threats have been inflated in the past, we are doing so now. However, in the past over-extrapolation and overreaction has often led to policies that were unwise, costly, unnecessary, and sometimes massively counterproductive. And an application of this experience to contemporary concerns about international terrorism suggests that, perhaps, we are at it yet again now, more than ever.

Despite contemporary alarmism about terrorism, today’s tiny bands of international terrorists hardly present a Hitlerian threat. Our present anxieties seem to be much inflated, and, accordingly, it may well be time to think again.

A postscript relating to Veronique de Rugy’s latest posting. A few weeks ago my son and daughter-in-law went to China where they picked up a baby they had adopted. Flying back they had to change planes in Paris and, on boarding the U.S.-bound plane there, the baby was frisked. So now I sleep well at night. Not only do I have a wonderful new granddaughter, but I know she is not a terrorist.


[1] Important in my thinking has been a book by the late Robert H. Johnson, Improbable Dangers: U.S. Conceptions of Threat in the Cold War and After, published by St. Martin’s in 1994. The book is now out of print, but by arrangement with the author and publisher I have been able to make it available on the web in PDF form at no charge. Information is at:

[2] For my argument, posted five months before the Iraq War, that Saddam Hussein presented little threat see:

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.