Chapter 3 — Why We’re Afraid
Ten years after the horrendous attacks of September 11, 2001, killed 3,000 people, three-fifths of Americans still live in fear of a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil — even though there has not been a successful international terrorism plot in the United States since. This abiding terror is the result of initial overreactions by the George W. Bush administration, of the natural tendency of people to have an irrational view of the dangers they are in, of the fear fomented by politicians in order to achieve their political goals, and of the influence on the public of an often uncritical media.
America’s reaction to a single attack the likes of which likely never will be experienced again also has saddled Americans with the costs of two protracted wars, created a nightmarish counterterrorism infrastructure that taps our phones, tracks our e-mails, and breaches our personal privacy at airports, and diverted resources that could be better spent on our crumbling infrastructure.
Here we will examine the matrix of factors that have contributed to America’s abiding and largely irrational fear of another major terrorist attack.
What the ‘skeptics’ said
On the first anniversary of 9/11, The Skeptical Inquirer ran an article by Clark R. Chapman and Alan W. Harris headlined “A Skeptical Look at September 11th.” They argued that “the disproportionate reaction to 9/11 was as damaging as the direct destruction of lives and property. Americans can mitigate future terrorism by learning to respond more objectively to future malicious acts.” They cited examples of how the effects of the attacks and the seriousness of the threat of future terrorism were blown out proportion by the Bush administration and the media, how the death toll of 9/11 pales in comparison to other causes of premature death in the United States, how the United States’ finite resources were being squandered as a result of this overreaction—and admonished the magazine’s skeptical readership to be more rational about the whole situation.
Apparently, Chapman and Harris’ advice wasn’t strictly followed. In his book 2006 Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them, political scientist John Mueller writes:
What we mostly get from the terrorism industry is fearmongering, and much of it borders on hysteria. An insightful discussion seeking to put the terrorist threat into context was published by astronomers Chapman and Harris. … They suggested that terrorism deserves exceptional attention only “if we truly think that future attacks might destroy our society.” But, they overconfidently concluded, “who believes that?” The article triggered enormous response, much of it, to their amazement, from inquiring readers who overcame any natural skepticism to believe exactly that. Those readers have a lot of company in the terrorism industry.
Following that piece by Chapman and Harris, The Skeptical Inquirer ran 15 letters in its “Readers Forum: Can We Respond More Rationally to Terrorism?” in its January-February 2003 issue. Most of the letters expressed at least some degree of support for Chapman and Harris’ thesis that America should be more prudent in allocating its emotional, financial and military resources in fighting a “war on terror.” Then there were these comments (excerpted; emphases added)—many of which bordered on the preposterous:
- Chapman and Harris seem to regard the World Trade Center attack as if it was an isolated incident. It is, in fact, only the most spectacular terrorist action by a network of pan-Islamic organizations which span the world and seek the extermination of all non-Muslims, as well as all Muslims who don’t go along with their particular brand of Islam.
- Terrorists are trying to destroy us. … The blindness of the authors to the imminent threat facing us is [clear].
- [While] it may be that the jihadists cannot hope to destroy us entirely … only an “insane” society would not act to thwart lesser yet still catastrophic threats, such as a nuclear device being exploded in a major American city.
- Chapman and Harris … are comparing apples with oranges. The effects of a terrorist attack … are concentrated — the result of a malicious, organized, and deliberate action. And more of the same is promised.
- Deaths and potential deaths should be properly plotted as a geometric curve increasing over time to the most recent 3,000 from Sept. 11 and projected into a future of biological, chemical and atomic attacks on our cities. … Any sane analysis will conclude that national survival, itself, is uniquely at stake.
- We are at war. We may not have a clearly defined enemy, but nonetheless war has been declared on America.
Chapman and Harris wrote a cogent, unapologetic response to those comments, saying that the logic of making a vengeful reaction to the motives of the terrorists belongs in “schoolyards and alleyways,” and that “by our own overreactions (as the terrorists hope), we further endanger our country, its values, and is economic well-being.”
We chose this example of the overreaction to 9/11 because the subset of the public that labels itself “skeptical” — including readers of The Skeptical Inquirer, “The Magazine of Science and Reason” — should exhibit a much lower bullshit threshold. Just a year after 9/11, it was clear that much that was said immediately following the event was exaggeration or outright fabrication, that the media was largely buying into it, and that the counterterrorism industry was already beginning to spiral out of control as a result. We discuss our revelations about the true threat of “international terrorism” and the efficacy of its alleged plans and weapons throughout this book. But first, we need to cut skeptics — and an often irrational human species as whole — some slack regarding how threats are naturally misconceived.
How we frighten ourselves
In his book Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, security expert Bruce Schneier proffers a coherent list of reasons why people’s perceived risks rarely correspond to the actual risks. For example:
- People overestimate the risks of spectacular events, such as the 9/11 attacks, and worry less about common risks, such as those inherent in driving an automobile.
- People have trouble estimating the risks of unfamiliar events, such as a terrorist attack.
- People underestimate risks they take voluntarily, and overestimate the risks of situations in which they have no control.
- People overestimate risks that are continuously under public scrutiny.
Three thousand people died in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Keeping the above observations in mind, it is informative to compare one’s perception of the odds of experiencing a premature death by certain causes with the actual probability of suffering each type of fate:
Schneier’s last point — that people overestimate risks that are continuously under public scrutiny — is the most relevant to the so-called war on terror. This national paranoia became institutionalized in November 2002 with passage of the Homeland Security Act — whose name alone perpetuates the fear of terrorism on the part of the American public. And despite the promise of a more rational approach to the threat of terrorism (including the restoration of some of our civil liberties) by the election of Barack Obama as president
in 2008, the baggage of that voracious agency is weighing us down today. ...
- The population of the United States is more than 312 million.
- There were 42,116 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2001 (that’s an average of 3,500 per month).
- Among causes of premature deaths annually are: residential fires (3,465), lightning (87), playground equipment accidents (22), shark attacks (0.6).
- Including 9/11, the number of Americans killed by terrorists since the late 1960s is about the same as the number killed by lightning, by accident-causing deer, or by severe allergic reactions to peanuts. The number of people who are killed worldwide by international terrorists each year is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.
- In 2001, 15,980 people were murdered, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. ...
Chapter 11 — The Costs of All This
Protecting Americans from “the threat of international terrorism” has become the credo of American politicians. For example, the proposed Department of Homeland Security budget for fiscal year 2011 had this preamble:
As a nation, we will do everything in our power to protect our country. As Americans, we will never give in to fear or division. We will be guided by our hopes, our unity, and our deeply held values. … And we will continue to do everything that we can to keep America safe in the new year and beyond.
— President Barack Obama,
December 28, 2009
The question is: Do we really want the federal government to do everything in its power to protect us from an enemy that poses, at worst, a marginal threat to the security of the United States and its citizens? And isn’t the ... war on terror itself “giving in to fear”?
The parallax view
Obama’s concept of national-security priorities was not original. President George W. Bush said pretty much the same thing in November 2005 when he vowed that “[we] will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory … we will win the war on terror.” (By what means the United States could defeat a tactic, Bush didn’t explain.)
And long before Bush, President John F. Kennedy, in his January 1961 inaugural address, said, “[We] shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” ... [Despite] horrendous war casualties and damage, the Soviet Union emerged from the World War II as a military superpower. Its leader Nikita Khrushchev told America, “We will bury you” — and he meant it. But that was then and this is now. The Soviet Union was an identifiable, bellicose, well-armed enemy state that, at least before its collapse began, was in many ways a genuine threat to U.S. security. Al Qaeda is not. ...
While other Western countries with larger, more militant Islamic populations treat terrorism as they do any other violent crime, the United States has elevated terrorism into a law enforcement and budget category of its own. This is reflected in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Murder and homicide statistics in the 2001 report do not include the 3,047 people it says were killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (this figure has since been revised to about 3,000), even though, as victims of non-state violence, they fall into the murder category.
In 2001, according to the 2009 Uniform Crime Reports, there were 16,037 cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter (5.6 per 100,000 people) in the United States. The total FBI budget for that year was $3.251 billion ($3.94 billion in 2009 dollars). In 2009, the FBI recorded 15,241 crimes in that category (5.0 per 100,000 people). But the total FBI budget for 2009 was $7.302 billion — up 48 percent (adjusted for inflation) in eight years. And between 2001 and 2009, the number of special agents increased 15 percent, from 11,375 to 13,382; and the number of intelligence analysts increased 59 percent, from 1,156 to 2,811. ...
A dedication to counterterrorism
The Department of Homeland Security embodies the U.S. government’s overreaction to 9/11. And the growth of its spending has been proportionate to the lengthening of its tentacles.
The DHS was established on November 2, 2002, by the Homeland Security Act. According to the DHS Web site, its primary mission is to: “(A) prevent terrorist attacks within the United States; (B) reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism; and (C) minimize the damage, and assist in the recovery, from terrorist attacks that do occur within the United States (emphases added).” At its inception and shortly thereafter, the DHS absorbed agencies from several cabinet departments and federal offices, and created some new ones, including:
- U.S. Border Patrol (Justice Department)
- Transportation Security Administration (Transportation Department)
- U.S. Coast Guard (Transportation Department)
- U.S. Secret Service (Treasury Department)
- Immigration and Naturalization Service (Justice Department)
- Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (Agriculture Department)
- Nuclear Incident Response Team (Energy Department)
- National Biological Warfare Defense Analysis Center (Defense Department)
- Plum Island Animal Disease Center (Agriculture Department)
- National Domestic Preparedness Office (FBI, Justice Department)
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (new office)
Besides the spendthrift TSA (see the chapters “Flying Our Unfriendly Skies” and “The Business of Airport Security”), one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Department of Homeland Job Security has been the Border Patrol. The DHS has bundled the Border Patrol’s original mandate of controlling America’s borders and its delegated authority from the Drug Enforcement Administration to bust drug smugglers with a frenzied post-9/11 xenophobia to create an agency on a fiscally toxic spending spree.
In fiscal year 2001, the Border Patrol had 9,821 agents nationwide, including 340 on the Canadian border. By the end of FY 2010, the number of agents nationwide had more than doubled to 20,558, and the number of northern agents had increased by 566 percent to 2,263. Meanwhile, apprehensions of illegal aliens dropped 63 percent, from 1.266 million nationwide in FY 2001 to 463,283 in FY 2010. Of those, agents on the Canadian border made 12,338 apprehensions (fewer than 0.1 percent of the national total; or 36 per agent) in FY 2001, and 7,431 apprehensions (1.6 percent of the national total, or only 3.3 per agent) in FY 2010. ...
Finally, on a Web page headlined “Open for Business,” the DHS lists $2.1 billion in grant programs for FY 2011, which are administered through FEMA. Among them are:
- Operation Stonegarden, which integrates local law enforcement and Border Patrol operations in states that border Mexico and Canada, and states and territories with international water borders; $54,890,000
- The State Homeland Security Program, which includes funding for Hollywood-style “fusion centers” 34,35 to collect and collate “threat-related information between the federal government and state, local, tribal, territorial … and private sector partners”; $526,874,100
- Urban Areas Security Initiative, which assists high-density urban areas “in building an enhanced and sustainable capacity to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism”; $662,622,100
- Transportation-rated grants for transit systems such as ferry operators, railroad freight carriers, intercity bus lines and port operators; $268 million
- Driver’s License Security Grant Program, “to help states and territories improve security of state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards in order to prevent terrorism”; $44 million (For more on Fear Inc.’s ID fetish, see the chapter “Our Vanishing Civil Liberties.”)
While these programs are a windfall for grant recipients, they also tend to manipulate the agendas of local law enforcement and private-sector management plans by involving these entities in the DHS’s relentless search for terrorists. And in doing so, these programs broaden America’s surveillance state, and further embed the fear of terrorism in local officials and citizens. ...
Footnotes are omitted from these abridged excerpts.