Should We Fear Terrorism or Fear Itself?

By Merry, Wayne | The American Conservative, March 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

Should We Fear Terrorism or Fear Itself?


Merry, Wayne, The American Conservative


Should We Fear Terrorism or Fear Itself? [Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, John Mueller, Free Press, 272 pages]

By Wagne Merry

IF, AS FRANTZ FANON SAID, "the aim of terrorism is to terrify," why is life in America during the global war on terrorism so normal? Even in Washington, where tangible aspects of GWOT are omnipresent, daily life lacks angst. I write only a mile from the Pentagon, but D.C. is booming with residential and commercial construction, while owners of older buildings see the planned departure of Defense Department offices for "security reasons" as an opportunity to attract better quality tenants. National Airport-outside my window-was shut down after 9/11, but today's operations are unimpeded other than the blessed banning of noisy private executive jets-again, for security reasons. Is America at war? In Iraq and Afghanistan, certainly, and we know it Against "global terrorism"? The administration thinks so but not the country.

John Mueller of Ohio State University attempts to sort out the contradictions of terrorism and our responses in a gutsy new book-gutsy because he risks ridicule or worse if another major attack occurs; gutsy because many of his sentences invite quotation out of context to show that the author is naïve, complacent, out of touch, or just plain liberal; gutsy also because most readers will recognize in these pages some of their own thoughts that they would never express in public.

My own reaction to Overblown is a desire to expand some of its sections. Mueller blasts the "terrorism industry" for immense and often frivolous waste in the pursuit of homeland security, but he could illustrate more. For example, here in the nation's capital, more than a billion dollars has already been spent turning Congress into a fortress guaranteed to alienate citizens from their elected representatives, but recently, a mentally disturbed man drove without difficulty into the Capitol's controlled zone and spent several hours within the Capitol Building itself before authorities could locate him. This is your tax dollars at work. As a former diplomat, I can only decry the vast sums spent constructing embassy bunkers while draining funds from the real business of American diplomacy, which is to engage people in foreign societies.

Half of Mueller's book is devoted to the historical experience of previous threats to America's security, such as Pearl Harbor and the Cold War. Unfortunately, Mueller does not compare America's historical experience in this regard to the experiences of other countries like Italy, Turkey, and Britain that have learned hard lessons about terrorism. I personally witnessed two contrasting examples.

The German Red Army Faction was small in numbers but tied the country in knots, making many Germans doubt the efficacy of their national institutions. The success of the Bonn government in dealing with the challenge was a true watershed in the maturation of democratic politics and the rule of law in modern Germany and, hence it was ultimately a positive experience. At the opposite pole, the complacency of the Greek public and political elites in responding to November 17, a Greek terrorist organization, demonstrated the dangers of under-reaction to violent extremism in a law-based state.

Some of the historical cases cited by Mueller carry more lessons than he mentions. For example, Pearl Harbor demonstrated the key distinction between strategic and tactical surprise. The U.S. knew that Japan's initiation of war was impending, as it later knew that al-Qaeda's series of attacks would culminate in another effort on American soil. In both cases, officials failed to appreciate the talents and resolve of our adversaries. Cultural condescension-even racism-played a key role in both failures. On the day of Pearl Harbor, senior officials in Washington suspected German involvement, as they could not believe mere Asians were capable of such boldness and operational skill. …

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