Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda


Following 9/11, Americans were swept up in a near hysteria-level fear of terrorists, especially of Islamic extremists working domestically. The government and media reports stoked fears that people living in the US have the desire and means to wreak extreme havoc and destruction. Early reports estimated slightly more than 300 al Qaeda operatives living in the United States. It wasn't long before this number became 2,000 or 5,000 domestic terrorists. As these estimates snowballed, so did spending on federal counterterrorism organizations and measures, spending which now totals over a trillion dollars. The federal government launched more covert operations in the name of fighting terrorist adversaries than they did in the entirety of the forty-five year Cold War. For each apprehension of a credible terrorist suspect, the US government created or re-organized two counterterrorism organizations. The scale of these efforts has been enormous, yet somehow they have not been proven to make Americans feels safe from what they perceive to be a massive terrorist threat. But how well-founded is this fear? Is the threat of terrorism in the United States as vast as it seems and are counterterrorism efforts effective and appropriately-scaled?

It has not, statistically speaking, been efficient or successful. Only one alarm in 10,000 has proven to be a legitimate threat-the rest are what the authors refer to as "ghosts." These ghosts are enormous drains on resources and contribute to a countrywide paranoia that has resulted in widespread support and minimal critical questioning of massive expenditures and infringements on civil liberties, including invasions of privacy and questionably legal imprisonments. In Chasing Ghosts, John Mueller and Mark Stewart argue that the "ghost chase" occupying American fears, law enforcement, and federal spending persists because the public believes that there exists in the US a dire and significant threat of terrorism. The authors seek to analyze to what degree this is a true and to what degree the threat posed by terrorists in the US defends the extraordinary costs currently put towards their investigation.

The chance that an American will be killed by a terrorist domestically in any given year is about one in four million (under present conditions). Yet despite this statistically low risk and the extraordinary amount of resources put towards combatting threats, Americans do not profess to feel any safer from terrorists. Until the true threat of domestic terrorism is analyzed and understood, the country cannot begin to confront whether our pursuit of ghosts is worth the cost.


Over the lengthy history of publishing, quite a few books have proven to be fairly reliable remedies for insomnia. This one, however, may be the first where that effect is the author’s main intention.

Drowsiness will not be induced, I hope, because the prose is enervatingly flaccid, dry, confused, convoluted, opaque, or turgid. Rather, the book could have its desired effect if it fulfills its central purpose. That is to put to rest, or at any rate to attenuate, an often overwhelming concern that has for decades very commonly kept policymakers and ordinary citizens from enjoying as deep and uninterrupted a slumber as they presumably deserve: excessive anxiety about nuclear weapons.

Ever since the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima ushered in what is often dubbed the “atomic age” or the “nuclear era,” people have obsessed about the potential for massive, even civilization-ending, destruction seemingly inherent in the weapon exploded there. Over the decades this obsession has variously focused on an endless array of creative, if consistently unfulfilled, worst-case scenarios deriving from fears about the cold war arms race, nuclear apocalypse, and the proliferation of the weapons to unreliable states (or even to reliable ones).

For example, in 1960 we were told by a distinguished pundit that it was a “certainty” that several nuclear weapons would go off within ten years, and a top nuclear strategist declared it . . .

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