Hyping Terror, Thanking Syria

We need to recognize that terrorism by Islamic extremists will be with us for the forseeable future and actually could worsen. But it is a manageable threat and should be treated realistically.
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The rightwing media (Wall Street Journal editorial page and National Review) have frequently criticized me for my July 2001 op-ed in the New York Times, which argued that terrorism was not the greatest threat facing the United States. Within the last month articles by Ohio State University professor, John Mueller, and Wired Magazine's, Ryan Singel, acknowledge, albeit indirectly, that I was right. They offer critical facts to buttress their arguments that the threat of terrorism is overstated.

While I fully agree with them, I would note that we have seen a dramatic, significant increase in international terrorist attacks in which people are killed and wounded since the United States invaded Iraq. The U.S. presence in Iraq is fueling a growth in terrorism. Fortunately, those who want to attack us in the continental United States confront major obstacles (which is a key part of Mueller's arguement).

Let's start with an article by Ryan Singel that appeared yesterday (September 11, 2006) in Wired. He writes:

But despite the never-ending litany of warnings and endless stories
of half-baked plots foiled, how likely are you, statistically speaking,
to die from a terrorist attack?

Comparing official mortality data with the number of Americans who
have been killed inside the United States by terrorism since the 1995
bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma reveals
that scores of threats are far more likely to kill an American than any
terrorist -- at least, statistically speaking.

In fact, your appendix is more likely to kill you than al-Qaida is.

With that in mind, here's a handy ranking of the various dangers
confronting America, based on the number of mortalities in each
category throughout the 11-year period spanning 1995 through 2005
(extrapolated from best available data).

Ryan offers a handy dandy color code chart that puts things in perspective:

Driving off the road: 254,419
Falling: 146,542
Accidental poisoning: 140,327

Dying from work: 59,730
Walking down the street: 52,000.
Accidentally drowning: 38,302

Killed by the flu: 19,415
Dying from a hernia: 16,742

Accidental firing of a gun: 8,536
Electrocution: 5,171

Being shot by law enforcement: 3,949
Terrorism: 3147
Carbon monoxide in products: 1,554

Professor John Mueller of Ohio State University is featured in the latest version of Foreign Affairs and provides a more scholarly review of the hype surrounding terrorism. In asking the question, Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?, Mueller notes that:

For the past five years, Americans have been regularly regaled with
dire predictions of another major al Qaeda attack in the United States.
In 2003, a group of 200 senior government officials and business
executives, many of them specialists in security and terrorism,
pronounced it likely that a terrorist strike more devastating than 9/11
-- possibly involving weapons of mass destruction -- would occur before
the end of 2004. In May 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft warned
that al Qaeda could "hit hard" in the next few months and said that 90
percent of the arrangements for an attack on U.S. soil were complete.
That fall, Newsweek reported that it was "practically an article of
faith among counterterrorism officials" that al Qaeda would strike in
the run-up to the November 2004 election. When that "October surprise"
failed to materialize, the focus shifted: a taped encyclical from Osama
bin Laden, it was said, demonstrated that he was too weak to attack
before the election but was marshalling his resources to do so months
after it.

On the first page of its founding manifesto, the massively funded
Department of Homeland Security intones, "Today's terrorists can strike
at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon."

But if it is so easy to pull off an attack and if terrorists are so
demonically competent, why have they not done it? Why have they not
been sniping at people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels,
poisoning the food supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains,
blowing up oil pipelines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting
the countless other vulnerabilities that, according to security
experts, could so easily be exploited?

One reasonable explanation is that almost no terrorists exist in the
United States and few have the means or the inclination to strike from
abroad. But this explanation is rarely offered.

Even rightwing whackos are starting to recognize the gap between the
rhetoric of fearmongering and the reality of terrorism. Commenting on John Mueller's article, NY Times columnist John Tierney opines (watch it John, that's what got me in trouble with the right):

The Bush administration likes to take credit for stopping domestic
plots, but it's hard to gauge whether these are much more than the
fantasies of a few klutzes. Bush also claims that the war in Iraq has
diverted terrorists' attention there, but why wouldn't global jihadists
want the added publicity from attacking America at home, too? Al
Qaeda's leaders threatened in 2003 to attack America -- along with a
half dozen other countries that haven't been attacked either.

conclusion is that there just aren't that many terrorists out there
with the zeal and the competence to attack the United States. In his
forthcoming book, "Overblown," he argues that the risk of terrorism
didn't increase after Sept. 11 -- if anything, it declined because of a
backlash against Al Qaeda, making it a smaller and less capable threat
than before. But the terrorism industry has been too busy hyping Sept.
11 and several other attacks to notice.

Hyping indeed! Terrorism is to the 21st Century what the Soviet missile gap was to the 20th--a threat that was overblown, that provoked an over reaction by the United States, and that fueled the growth of new economic sectors.

We need to recognize that terrorism by Islamic extremists will be with us for the forseeable future and actually could worsen. But it is a manageable threat and should be treated realistically. This requires more international diplomacy, law enforcement, and intelligence than military force. The path forward is visible in part from the latest news about the foiled terrorist attack against the US Embassy in Damascus. Our axis of evil "enemy", Syria, stepped up to the plate and defended our diplomats from Islamic extremists. While we have policy differences with the Government of Bashir Assad, this much is true--even authoritarian Arab leaders dislike and fear Muslim extremists. Working collaboratively with Arabs and Muslims we can put terrorism in its place.

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