- Since 9-11, our country, on its best days, has been on
conditional alert against a possible terrorist attack. Before 9-11 we were
conscious of the possibility of terrorist attacks and we fitted that risk
into a spectrum of perils that ranged from slipping on a bar of soap in
the bathtub to being on a plane when it was blown out of the sky; a broad,
random, dour, but not readily personalized set of risks. We took it that
way and learned to live with it. Carefully assessed, the reality still
looks much the same, but we are behaving differently. What is going on?
- Life on earth is fraught with natural and manmade disasters.
Natural disasters can be devastating as we saw recently in Bam, Iran with
the number of deaths approaching 40,000 people. Preparedness between events
has steadily improved over the years, but the response is considered, compassionate,
and generally focused on recover and rebuild. War, a manmade disaster,
leaves more scars, but in time it too devolves into recover and rebuild.
What then is so unique about terrorism that we respond to it so differently,
seem prepared to allow our leadership to corrupt our democratic system
to deal with it, and appear to have allowed ourselves to become enslaved
by it in the backlash from 9-11?
- We have entered the fear market, where mainly ignorance
and mere perception drive our thoughts, emotions and responses. This place
demands our close attention, because we are seldom given enough information
to make specific defensive moves credible or useful. Terrorists seldom
announce their moves in advance; quite often the announcement is the attack.
They cynically scare us and move on. Governments are compelled politically
to say they are well informed about the matter and are on top of it, but
in reality they are seldom either. The next real attack is likely to catch
everyone by surprise, and no amount of warlike preparation significantly
alters that prospect.
- How does terrorism compare with other risks?
- Our reactions to the possibility of terrorism are out
of proportion to the facts. In order to understand the problem, it is useful
to look at several common risk situations.
- Upward of 320,000 Americans died in homicides or suicides
during the period 1996-2002. That amounts to about 45,000 people per year,
and the chance that an American might die this way is roughly one in 6,500.
American deaths from terrorism during that period amounted to only 1,538,
including over 1,400 Americans who died in the 9-11 attacks. In this period,
inclusive of 9-11, the chance of an American dying by terrorist hands was
roughly one in 1.3 million.
- Almost 200,000 people were killed or injured in vehicle
accidents in the United States involving drunk driving during 2001. A
total of 1530 Americans were killed or injured in the 9-11 attacks that
- During 2002 more than 17,400 people in the United States
died in alcohol related motor vehicle accidents. Only 61 Americans died
or were injured as a result of terrorist attacks during 2002.
- Data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control indicate
that since 1981 over 660,000 Americans or more than 30,000 per year have
died in the United States from homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings
involving firearms. During the period 1981-2002 worldwide terrorist deaths
and injuries amounted to about 51,600 or roughly 2350 per year.
- On average more than 40,000 Americans are killed and
close to 3 million are injured in highway accidents each year. The odds
are less than one in 100 that any of us could be involved in such an accident
in the United States. Last year the worldwide chance of someone dying by
terrorist hands was about one in 2.7 million.
- How do we put terrorism in perspective?
- There is genuine concern in many parts of our society
about losses of life through accidents and murder or suicide, but there
is no great political furor about any of it. Nor do we seem prepared to
deal effectively-assuming that we could-- with the mayhem annually perpetrated
by use of firearms. Most people respond to the situation on our highways
by being more careful, wearing their seat belts, avoiding alcohol abuse,
and getting on with their lives. We mostly shrug off the fact that the
National Rifle Association and its membership have a political hammerlock
on gun controls, no matter what the arguments are on both sides of this
question. Why is it therefore that our leadership has been driven to a
state of near paranoia by terrorism? Just what is this fear market? How
do we put the threat terrorism poses for our lives, property and lifestyles
into some sensible perspective?
- Before 9-11, fear was not our organizing principle but
the Bush administration has made it so in the 28 months since 9-11. Terrorism,
and the shadows of fear around it, were centerpieces of this year's Bush
State of the Union address. Yet, since 9-11 we have not been attacked at
home and Americans have experienced only limited attacks abroad. We have
instead become the attacker while talking ourselves into a frenzy. Our
leadership, our media, and a burgeoning array of firms and organizations
that market their goods and services through playing on fear have built
and sustain the overblown images we now confront. In effect, fear has
become a major marketing tool for government budgets, leadership acceptance,
political campaigns, government programs, publishing and media programming,
insurance and other private business activities.
- Who are the targets of fear marketing?
- We Americans are the targets. Politicians argue that
not telling us about threats is a bad policy. The net effect of current
terrorism information policy, notably the national alert system, keeps
us apprehensive, and gives the terrorists one of their best tools: fear.
- This fear campaign can be effective with us only if we
do not do our homework. Since 9-11 the impact of government policy and
publicity has been to keep us focused on the here-now. That single day's
events have been turned from a single disastrous day into a continuum.
Tomorrow, we are counseled, can be like another 9-11. Terrorism alerts
stay in the yellow to orange zones. Therefore, we must organize our lives
around that prospect. This indeed is a pretty hairy outlook, but let's
remember Franklin D. Roosevelt's caution: "We have nothing to fear
but fear itself." Then let us look critically at the available data
- What are the terrorism data?
- For the past three decades our country has coped with
a worldwide pattern of terrorist attacks, some of which were deliberately
aimed at us, but most of which involved Americans only incidentally; we
were often in the wrong places at the wrong times. The attacks would have
occurred had we not been there, because we were not the targets. US terrorism
data do not make that distinction, counting any attack that involves death
or injuries to Americans or American property as anti-US attacks.
- The data are distorted in another way in that the most
numerous of so-called anti-US attacks are oil pipeline bombings in Colombia.
Over the past decade more than 1,300 attacks have been billed as anti-US.
However, more than 1,000 of those were Colombia pipeline bombings in which
casualties were rare. During the three-year period 2000-2002 that straddled
9-11 there were 968 international terrorist attacks recorded worldwide.
Over 400 of those were Colombia pipeline bombings.
- To get rid of such anomalies as Colombia pipeline bombings,
the official US data published by the State Department isolated a set of
significant incidents, those involving deaths, injuries, hostage takings,
kidnappings or property damage. In the 2000-2002 period, State recorded
403 significant incidents worldwide, 150 of which occurred in India, largely
clustered around the Kashmir problem.
- To get the problem of international terrorism clear in
our minds, it is essential to look at such patterns. What the data show
is that during 2000-2002 there were about 250 significant terrorist incidents
worldwide, but only four of them occurred in North America, all on 9-11.
- How are we misled?
- Nothing about the terrorism pattern warrants launching
a worldwide "War on Terrorism." Without the fear factor, the
threat is not credible. How is the fear factor sustained?
- There are several aspects of fear mongering we must assess.
One is implicitly to lump together all the small insurgent groups in the
world as a more or less monolithic enemy of the United States. This is
fallacious, because the majority of insurgencies are directed against the
governments or the elites of their own countries.
- Such insurgencies exist in many of the 50 or so failed
or failing nation states. Some fairly large groups, such as the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerca Armada Revolutionaria Colombiana) or FARC,
which numbers 10,000 or more, seldom venture out of their own countries.
The Abu Sayaff group in the Philippines, which operates in the fringes
such as the China Sea island of Palawan, fights in Philippine territory.
These groups represent some threat to Americans who get in their way,
but they pose virtually no threat to the United States.
- Another fallacy is the loose play around the threat of
Islamic fundamentalism. Although Muslims may be closer to their core beliefs
than many Christians, fundamentalists represent a small fraction of the
Islamic adherents of the world who number upward of 1.3 billion people.
In fact mainstream Muslims and believers of secular government who want
to depose their elite, corrupt or oligarchic leaders are far more numerous
than fundamentalists. Here again, the primary targets of their energies
are their own governments. We become the enemy because we visibly ally
with their hated governments, but that threat is largely centered on the
national territories of those countries.
- What about al Qaida?
- Osama bin Laden well understands the situations outlined
above. Through al Qaida he aids and abets dissidents in those situations
to undercut secular governments or, as in the Saudi Arabian case, leaders
who oppose and suppress his brand of Islamism. Such individuals and groups
pose a threat to Americans and American interests in those countries, but
they are not generally a threat to the United States. Much of the terrorism
al Qaida recently has been blamed for has occurred in Islamic countries
against indigenous targets. If bin Laden is serious about his scheme to
recreate an Islamic caliphate-and it is not known how serious he is about
that-then much of his terrorist activity and terrorist attack sponsorship
will be to destabilize and unseat secular or nominal Islamic governments
in Islamic countries and to disrupt the pattern of support that the US
and other developed countries long have extended to those governments.
This is not an easy challenge for US leadership, because disengaging and/or
reducing support without losing influence on those governments is unlikely.
- Al Qaida and bin Laden are poised, however, to take advantage
of any flaws in American conduct or activities, especially in Islamic countries.
Iraq is the immediate case in point. There are enough indigenous sources
of dissension among Iraqis to sustain more than one insurgency until the
Americans, British and Coalition partners give up and leave. Bin Laden
can leverage small investments of resources and people in this conflict
to make it worse, but the main sources of trouble in Iraq are indigenous
and they are feeding on the occupation. The argument that what goes on
in Iraq is part of the War on Terrorism is mere window dressing. The Iraq
conflict must be faced as a struggle between an occupying force and indigenous
sources of resistance. Sources and causes of terrorism in the rest of
the world are largely irrelevant to it.
- How is fear generated?
- The generators of fear are largely controlled by government
attitudes and actions. What scares serious thinkers most is the fact that
the United States Government is prepared to go to a condition of all out
global war preparedness against small groups of non-state actors in sixty
or more countries. Even if all the world's terrorists were on the same
team, which they are not, they would still number fewer than the population
of Delaware. In effect, the United States has a wartime President who has
declared all out and global war on the equivalent at worst of a micro-state.
Even more pointedly, he has declared war on groups that many of the countries
that contain them may find irritating but not sufficiently to go to war.
High level US rhetoric about these groups makes it appear that they are
mainly enemies of the United States, but that is hardly the case. The
majority of these groups lack the resources or the inclination to go truly
international. In many instances they get an international label in State
Department reporting because they attack foreigners inside their own countries.
- The most pervasive fear maintenance system is the national
terrorism alert program run by the Department of Homeland Security. An
Orange Alert status was maintained throughout the Christmas-New Years holidays.
That was based as much as anything on rumors and speculations about how
effective a major attack would be somewhere such as Times Square at midnight
New Year's eve. A similar alert was maintained during the period around
the anniversary of 9-11.
- The second most pervasive fear mechanism is media reporting,
often inspired by government leaks or press conferences about possible
terrorism threat situations. Few media appear interested in talking about
the chronic problems that generate terrorism in many countries, because
those tales do not make good headlines. A story about people who blow
things away is more likely to make headlines than one about millions of
people who suffer in silence, even if their suffering is among the main
roots of terrorism.
- The third currently pervasive threat mechanism is Osama
bin Laden's practice of periodically sending the world a tape that Washington
officials consciously or unconsciously use to refurbish the threat. The
interplay between Osama and US officialdom works to broadcast that Osama
is still alive and al Qaida a real threat. The fear machine works.
- A deeply insidious fear mechanism is the unwillingness
of honest skeptics and opponents of the war in both parties to speak out
against it. Because they are afraid that either the public or their political
opponents or both will punish them politically for taking a stand against
a useless war, that war endures and even gains life as the Republican leadership
around Bush cynically uses that fear of criticism to silence and undercut
opposition to the War on Terrorism
- Where does this leave us?
- The cumulative effect of all these fear-generating mechanisms
is a human condition closely akin to superstition. Rumor and supposition
substitute for facts and information. But combined with that ambiguous
state of knowledge is a bogey-man theory of world terrorism. We were struggling
with world terrorism well before the CIA began training Osama bin Laden
and other fighters against the Russians in Afghanistan. What bin Laden
has done since graduation is assess and capitalize on the patterns of grievances
many groups around the world have against their governments, the dominant
elites or religious and secular groups that compete for power. He uses
that assessment for recruitment and action against enemies who actually
or potentially interfere with his goal of recreating a Muslim caliphate
to rule Islam. He did not invent the bogey man. We did that for him.
An elusive, amorphous enemy that was world terrorism before bin Laden is
not nearly as satisfying a target as a specific, humanized enemy. He satisfies
the need for an enemy. We satisfy his need for identity and influence.
- How can we break out of this situation?
- Data and analysis are available in the public domain
to deal with this problem. The State Department annual report, required
under Title 22 of the United State Code, and which this writer helped to
create in the early 1980s, provides an increasingly clear and comprehensive
picture of world terrorism. The report called Patterns of Global Terrorism
provides a sound basis for judgment about terrorist groups and situations
in countries where terrorism occurs each year.
- Unfortunately this report does not appear to be read
by senior officials of the government. If read, its logic is certainly
not driving US policy, because using a worst case estimate al Qaida membership
accounts for less than ten percent of known world terrorist group membership.
The report itself has fallen prey since 9-11 to an exaggerated focus on
Muslim terrorists and al Qaida, but the obvious conclusion to draw from
the annual reports is that if Osama bin Laden were to die from natural
causes or be killed and al Qaida shrivel to nil, most of the world's terrorist
groups and problems would remain with us.
- We need a policy that is based on knowledge and understanding
of those facts, not one that relies on fear and uncertainty. Today, our
country is being victimized by its own leadership. Ideologues and extremists,
as well as true believers in the utility of military power and direct action,
drive a national policy that favors preemptive war and global domination
as the only tools to meet a largely local problem that exists in some measure
in many nations. Only the United States now argues that this problem can
be met by military means. Fear (of an exaggerated enemy) and uncertainty
(about when, where and how a terrorist attack may occur) are the only arguments
made to sustain this policy
- Is there no good news?
- On the other side of this situation, we should marvel
at how calm most people remain under conditions of deep privation, repression,
servitude and injustice. If there were ever a generalized human reaction
to these conditions, we could have about a third of the world's people
up in arms. One of the most remarkable results of the Israeli treatment
of the Palestinian people is not that it produces suicide bombers but that,
given the millions of repressed peoples in the West Bank and Gaza, it produces
so few of them. The Palestinians give us the reassuring fact that even
when subjected to extremes of repression, the great majority of people
are not prone to violence. The world terrorism threat is as modest as
it is because comparatively few of the world's 6.3 billion people are violent.
- What can be done about the situation?
- The War on Terrorism ignores most of the foregoing facts.
The President launched a small-scale special operation in Afghanistan.
He then kept the country on a war footing to launch a war against Iraq
that the facts did not and do not support. He and his neo-con advisers
have loosely labeled the conflict in Iraq as "the central front"
in the war on terrorism, but that ignores the obvious truth that a people
whose country is invaded will fight back by whatever means available.
- Little to no effort is being mounted to deal with the
causes of terrorism. The causes-- poverty, hunger, disease, political and
economic repression--are well known to many workers in international organizations
and in the United States Government. In the competition for resources,
war fighting gets priority. Mitigating or eliminating the causes of terrorism
does not. Trying to reduce or eliminate terrorist attacks without doing
anything about the causes of terrorism is like trying to eliminate drunk
driving without doing anything about alcohol abuse. That logic would appeal
to someone who wants to strike a coin that has a head but no tail. Of
course the same logic works for someone who insists on increasing government
spending while reducing government revenue. But worse still, this logic
works for present policy advocates who appear to believe that terrorists
can be hounded or beaten into giving up their grievances.
- The majority of the world's terrorists and their grievances
are not in the United States. Most remain within their own countries and
pursue battles against their own country's leaders and elites. The United
States is often treated as an enemy because it allies itself with those
leaders and elites. Those alliances are prime recruiting arguments for
al Qaida. But the only way a global war on terrorism can be justified is
to make a convincing case that world terrorism is principally aimed against
the United States and therefore justifies a warlike response worldwide.
- No such case factually exists. The only case that can
be made is that terrorists can attack us at home at any time. In the abstract
that is true, but in fact it always has been true. The only other argument
that can be persuasive is that such attacks are imminent. That assertion
depends on the willing cooperation of the bogey man. Our leadership now
responds to Osama bin Laden tapes with all the certainty of Pavlov's dog.
Terrorism alerts go up a notch. Fear refurbishes public support for the
War on Terrorism.
- Is there a way out?
- What a mess. But we can break out of it.
- - Demand straight talk and question what our leadership
tells us. - Demand better intelligence and closer attention to analysis.
We should not ever have a repeat of the mismatch between truth and action
that is Iraq. - Recognize and apply the knowledge our government already
has about the worldwide causes of terrorism - Devote needed human and material
resources to mitigating those problems. - Promote actual delivery of those
human and material resources by all governments that have any to spare.
- Assure that the world's wealthiest nations stay with it for the long
haul. - Shut down the War on Terrorism. - Put the task of combating terrorist
crimes back where it belongs, in the law enforcement and intelligence communities
of all countries concerned.
- Our best prospects for making a severe terrorist attack
on the United States less likely are contained in those steps. We must
accept that perfection is impossible and that uncertainties of the types
that commonly beset our lives every day are unavoidable. Terrorism at worst
is one of those, but it is less likely than many others. This is the antidote
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the United States Department of State. He welcomes your comments at:firstname.lastname@example.org