But Fear Itself: Are We Overreacting to the Terrorist Threat?

By Klein, Avi | The Washington Monthly, April 2007 | Go to article overview

But Fear Itself: Are We Overreacting to the Terrorist Threat?


Klein, Avi, The Washington Monthly


Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them By John Mueller Free Press, 272 pp.

With public alarm over terrorism still running high in America, and with media outlets such as the Drudge Report and Fox News continually stoking such fears, one might be forgiven for overlooking the fact that the United States hasn't experienced an attack on its own soil since 9/11. Despite initial fears that more than 5,000 operatives and sympathizers were active within our borders, the government has not identified a single cell, nor have its comprehensive visitor- and immigration-screening programs discovered many suspects trying to get in. Of course, it could be that al-Qaeda is too sophisticated for our defenses. Terrorist methods, we have been led to believe, often outstrip the sophistication of the world's best intelligence agencies.

Or maybe we're simply not as endangered as we feel. That's the case that Ohio State University political science professor and noted contrarian John Mueller sets out to make in Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

Overblown is a polemical, sometimes tedious, but important book that delights in the same exasperated enthusiasm in busting up conventional wisdom about homeland security that Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion enjoys regarding organized religion. "A threat that is real but likely to prove to be of limited scope has been massively, perhaps even fancifully, inflated to produce widespread and unjustified anxiety," Mueller writes. This has caused the United States to harm itself by overreacting with wasteful spending and war.

Overblown argues that the United States has been overestimating threats since at least as far back as the 1930s. As Mueller writes, "every foreign policy threat in the past several decades that has come to be accepted as significant has then eventually been unwisely exaggerated." And he does mean "every." Among his examples of U.S. overreaction are the invasion of Panama, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and even World War II. In all of these cases, Mueller believes American planners allowed fear and hysteria rather than sober-minded judgment to rule their decision-making processes. "The enemy, pretty much, is us," he states.

This is obviously not a man who's afraid of provocative claims. For example, Mueller asserts that the bombing of Pearl Harbor did not require all-out war in response. Instead, American planners should have employed a policy of containment and harassment against Japan, undercutting the militarists in the Japanese government and providing cover for moderates who urged restraint. If not for Roosevelt's overreaction, millions of lives and dollars would have been saved.

Mueller is no less compromising on the U.S. policy of containment against the Soviet Union practiced during the cold war. According to Mueller, this too was unnecessary. After all, if George Kennan was right to say that an expansionist Soviet Union would eventually rot from within, then surely the best policy would have been to hasten that fateful day by allowing it to expand.

Most readers, of course, will be justifiably put off by such reasoning. But it is worth postponing the urge to throw the book across the room in order to get to the more persuasive arguments the author makes about terrorism.

As Mueller points out, every bust of a terrorism suspect in the United States has ended up being less important than originally claimed. Jose Padilla never got anywhere close to manufacturing a dirty bomb, if indeed he ever intended to. (The charge was dropped when he was removed from military custody into federal court, where the burden of proof for such a charge is much greater than in the media.) Indeed, no one has yet unearthed a genuine terrorist cell operating within the United States. …

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