Terrorism And The
Fear Market

By Terrell E. Arnold

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 year.
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 about terrorism.
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 to fear.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the United States Department of State. He welcomes your comments



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