The Dangers of Alarmism

Threat identification and threat inflation are clearly important elements in international affairs. However, determining which threats and fears people and policymakers will embrace as notable and important is difficult. Thus, the American public and its leaders have remained remarkably calm about the dangers of genetically modified food while becoming very wary of nuclear power. The French see it very differently. In the United States, illegal immigration from Mexico is seen to be a threat in some years, but not in others. The country was “held hostage” when Americans were kidnapped in Iran in 1979 or in Lebanon in the 1980s but not when this repeatedly happened during the Iraq War or in Colombia. Milošević in Serbia became a monster worthy of attention and alarm, but not Mugabe in Zimbabwe or SLORC in Burma or Pol Pot in Cambodia or, until 9/11, the Taliban in Afghanistan.

John Mueller at the PRIO Annual Peace Address.

However, it does seem that every foreign policy threat in the last several decades that has come to be accepted as significant has, in the process, been unwisely exaggerated. As a result, over the last several decades, alarmism has been prominent in thinking about international security. When successfully generated, alarmism very frequently leads to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise, even dangerous. First, a threatening event is treated not as an aberration, but rather as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous, will remain so, and will become worse—an exercise that might be called “massive extrapolation.” And second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat and to overspend to deal with it without much thought about alternative policies including ones that might advocate simply letting it be. There is, as Noël Coward once put it in different context, a “dread of repose.” I would like to examine alarmism during the Cold War about the nature of the Soviet threat and alarmism after 9/11 about the threat presented terrorism. I conclude with a discussion about the relevance of deterrence to the process.

With this I do not wish to suggest that all fears are unjustified or that international threats are never underestimated. In fact, I suspect that some of the tendency to inflate threats in the period after World War II derives from the fact that the threat presented by Adolf Hitler’s Germany had been underappreciated in the period before it (and Hitler was keen to help: in virtually all of his foreign policy speeches of the 1930s, he spoke of his ardent desire for peace). The post-war proclivity toward exaggeration and overreaction may also stem in part from the traumatic prewar experience with Japan when there had been something of a tendency to underestimate its capacity and, in particular, its willingness to take risks. Robert Jervis has suggested that “those who remember the past are condemned to making the opposite mistakes.” The pre-war experience with Hitler and with Japan may have been too well remembered.

Alarmism and the Cold War

During the Cold War, it came to be commonly accepted that the USSR posed a direct military threat to the West. In addition, particularly in the United States, a long-lasting alarm about the dangers presented by domestic Communists was generated. Both of these inspired massive countering efforts and expenditures that, it certainly appears in hindsight, were excessive. Alarm that the Soviet United presented a direct military threat was substantially established when Communist North Korea invaded the South in June 1950. A comparison with the 1930s was readily, if glibly, applied, and all of President Harry Truman’s advisers agreed that to fail to meet the challenge in Korea would be appeasement, which would lead ultimately to wider war. “I felt certain,” Truman recalled, “that if South Korea was allowed to fall Communist leaders would be emboldened to override nations closer to our own shores….If this was allowed to go unchallenged it would mean a third world war, just as similar incidents had brought on the second world war.” How, one might ask, could he, or anyone, be so certain?

Most Western decision makers felt that the invasion was part of a “Soviet strategic master plan,” and they became concerned that it might be merely a diversionary tactic: as defense analyst Bernard Brodie recalls, many, particularly the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “were utterly convinced that the Russians were using Korea as a feint to cause us to deploy our forces there while they prepared to a launch a ‘general’ (total) war against the United States through a major attack on Europe.” Indeed, observes historian John Lewis Gaddis, by 1950 no one at the summit of foreign policy could imagine that most of the major international developments that were to take place in the next half-century would do so. Among these: “that there would be no World War” and that the United States and the Soviet Union, “soon to have tens of thousands of thermonuclear weapons pointed at one another, would agree tacitly never to use any of them.” Given the conditions of the times, concern was obviously justified. However, milder explanations—ones which proved to be the correct ones—were simply not embraced, or even, it seems, considered. After all, those running world affairs after World War II were the same people or the intellectual heirs of the people who had tried desperately to prevent that cataclysm. It was entirely plausible that such people, despite their huge differences on many issues, might well manage to keep themselves from plunging into a self-destructive repeat performance. Although this perspective was not, of course, the only possible one, there was no definitive way to dismiss it, and it should accordingly have been on the table. But it seems not to have been. In fact, there was nothing in Soviet doctrine to remotely justify an assumption that they would want to risk a major war. According to the ideology on which the regime had been founded in 1917, world history is a vast, continuing process of progressive revolution. Steadily, in country after country, the oppressed working classes will violently revolt, destroying the oppressing capitalist classes and aligning their new regimes with other like-minded countries. However dynamic and threatening their ideology, the Soviets never subscribed to a Hitler-style theory of direct, Armageddon-risking conquest. After it was all over, a great amount of documentary evidence became available, and as Jervis notes, “the Soviet archives have yet to reveal any serious plans for unprovoked aggression against Western Europe, not to mention a first strike against the United States.” Vojtech Mastny, after an extended analysis, agrees: “The strategy of nuclear deterrence [was] irrelevant to deterring a major war that the enemy did not wish to launch in the first place.”

The Communist venture in Korea, then, seems to have been a limited military probe at a point of perceived vulnerability in a peripheral area. Despite Western knee-jerk expressions of certainty and utter conviction, there was no evidence at the time that Stalin actually had anything broader in mind, nor has any come to light since. It was an opportunistic, one-off, event, not an element in a master plan as alarmists of the time simply assumed. However, alarm in the West certainly had very substantial consequences. In massive extrapolation, the American defense budget quadrupled — something that previously had been thought to be politically and economically infeasible. And to confront the supposed danger of a military invasion of Western Europe by the Soviets, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was rapidly transformed from a paper organization (big on symbolism, small on actual military capability) into a viable, well-equipped, centrally-led multinational armed force. In all, the United States spent somewhere between 5.5 and 10 trillion dollars on nuclear weapons and delivery systems—enough to purchase everything (or about half of everything) in the country except for the land. All this, primarily to confront, to deter, and to make glowering and menacing faces at, a perceived threat of direct military aggression that, essentially, didn’t exist. It also came to be accepted that military means might be needed to stop the spread of Communist revolution, and Vietnam became a disastrous “test case” in that process. In fact, the policy to seek to contain and confront Communism was logically flawed. If the Soviet system really was as rotten and as destined to self-destruct as the policy’s chief architect, George Kennan, more or less accurately surmised, the best policy would have been to let it expand until it reached the point of terminal overstretch. And it turned out that what ultimately helped bring about the mellowing of Soviet expansionism was not containment’s success, but its failure. Partly out of fear of repeating the Vietnam experience, the United States went into a sort of containment funk in the late 1970s and watched from a distance as the Soviet Union, in what seems in retrospect to have been remarkably like a fit of absentmindedness, opportunistically gathered that collection of Third World countries into its imperial embrace. Almost all of these soon became economic and political basket cases, fraught with dissension, financial mismanage-ment, and civil warfare. Eventually, the Soviets came to realize that they would have been better off contained.

Also generated at the time, particularly in the United States, was extravagant alarmism about the degree to which domestic Communists — ”masters of deceit” and “enemies from within” — presented a threat to the republic. Thus, J. Edgar Hoover, the highly respected, even revered, director of the FBI, insisted in a 1958 book that the American Communist Party was working “day and night to further the Communist plot in America” with “deadly seriousness”; that a “Bolshevik transmission” was in progress that was “virtually invisible to the non-Communist eye, unhampered by time, distance, and legality”; that it was “creating Communist puppets throughout the country”; and that it had for “its objective the ultimate seizure of power in America.” Those in quest of the enemy within, like Hoover, spent a prodigious amount of time and public money in pursuit. For example, in 1972, the FBI in full perpetual motion mode opened 65,000 new files as part of its costly quest to ferret out Communists in the United States. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s observation about the European witch craze — ”The more fiercely they were prosecuted, the more numerous they seemed to become” — appears to resonate. In a fascinating book, German literature specialist Alexander Stephan describes the U.S. government’s surveillance of a group of German émigré writers during and after World War II. None was found to pose much of a subversive threat, and the surveillance never led to real persecution — indeed, few of the writers noticed they were being watched. Instead, what impresses Stephan is the essential absurdity of the situation — the “high efficiency and gross overkill” as hundreds of agents were paid to intercept and catalog communications, to endlessly record goings and comings, and to sift enterprisingly through trash bins in a quest for incriminating information.

For example, there is something profoundly ludicrous about the fact that dozens of government employees spent their time in the middle of a world war monitoring pillow talk between Bertolt Brecht and his Danish co-worker, Ruth Berlau—all this, notes the amazed Stephan, “at taxpayers’ expense. It appears that no one during the Cold War attacked the alarmist premise of the system: that domestic Communists posed a threat severe enough to require an elaborate and expensive policing effort. Substantially, it seems, Hoover’s dire exaggerations were substantially accepted, and it appears that no one in the United State ever said in public: “Many domestic Communists adhere to a foreign ideology that ultimately has as its goal the destruction of capitalism and democracy and by violence if necessary; however, they do not present much of a danger, are actually quite a pathetic bunch, and couldn’t subvert their way out of a wet paper bag. Why are we expending so much time, effort, and treasure on this issue?” It is astounding that this plausible, if arguable, point of view seems never to have been publicly expressed by anyone during the lengthy Cold War, whether politician, pundit, professor, or editorialist. Instead, the essential premise of the system was generally accepted: there are a lot of dangerous and capable Communists running around in the country.

The fear of domestic Communism, and the consequent costly anti-Communist surveillance system it spawned, flourished for decades. After the 1950s, press attention to the domestic Communism dwindled to almost nothing—because there was nothing to report. However, public opinion surveys demonstrate that the percentage of Americans who considered domestic Communists to present a great or very great danger to the country declined not at all in the ten years after 1954—the height of the McCarthy era—and even 20 years later it had gone down by only one-quarter. The Communist-craze died out only when international Communism obligingly collapsed at the end of the Cold War. At that point, any machinations by domestic Communists no longer had a threatening foreign referent: although espionage continued to be of concern, there no longer existed a hostile foreign power to whom domestic Communists could relay secrets, nor was there a prominent, threatening ideology stressing subversion and violent revolution for them to serve.

Alarmism about Terrorism after 9/11

Recalls Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City at the time, “anybody, any one of these security experts, including myself, would have told you on September 11, 2001, we’re looking at dozens and dozens and multiyears of attacks like this.” The concern is certainly understandable. However, that every “security expert” should fervently embrace such alarmist—and, it turned out, erroneous—views is fundamentally absurd. It was also an entirely plausible extrapolation from facts then at hand that 9/11 could prove to be an aberration rather than a harbinger. Yet it appears that no one in authority could even imagine that proposition to be true — effectively, they dismissed it out of hand — even though it could have been taken to fit the available information fully as well as the passionately embraced alarmist perspective. In his memoir of his time as president of the United States, George W. Bush recalls a briefing he received from the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation a few weeks after the terrorist tragedy of September 11, 2001. The director informed him “that there were 331 potential al-Qaeda operatives inside the United States.” Bush says his routine at the time was to pepper such reports with questions: “How credible was each threat? What had we done to follow up on a lead?” However, when writing his book nearly a decade later, he apparently did not feel it useful to reflect critically (or ironically) on the director’s impressive and remarkably precise number. If he had, he would likely have concluded that virtually all of the 331 envisioned terrorists did not exist. Michael Morell, the CIA agent in charge of briefing Bush at the time, recalls the atmosphere vividly in a book published in 2015: “We were certain we were going to be attacked again.” There was “an avalanche—literally thousands—of intelligence reports in the months following 9/11 that strongly indicated that al Qa’ida would hit us again,” and some of these indicated that the terrorists might use chemical or biological weapons or “even crude nuclear devices”—a suggestion Morell says he found to be “believable.” Even fourteen years later, Morell does not pause to reflect on why or how those “thousands” of alarming intelligence reports could have been so hopelessly and so spectacularly wrong. Intelligence sources were soon seeing terrorists everywhere. By 2002 they were telling rapt and uncritical reporters—and presumably the president of the United States—that the number of trained al-Qaeda operatives in the United States was between 2,000 and 5,000.As it happens, however, scarcely any al-Qaeda operatives have ever been unearthed in the United States. The government has been far better at counting al-Qaeda operatives in the country than at finding them. In the process, a massive counterterrorism enterprise has been constructed, far larger than the one that had chased domestic Communists during the Cold War. Agencies like the FBI, redirecting much of their effort from organized crime and white-collar embezzlement, have kept their primary focus on the terrorist threat. The government reportedly each day follows up on more than 5,000 tips or leads—or “threats,” as they are (rather preposterously) called internally. If each of these takes an average of two days to investigate, the United States has followed up on 915,000 “threats” per year, or well over 10 million since 2001. Even under very generous assumptions about how many of these contain true grist, only one alarm in 10,000 fails to be false. And the vast majority of the leads deemed worthy of pursuit seem to have led to terrorist enterprises that were either trivial or at most aspirational. But the chase will continue, of course, because no one wants to be the one whose neglect somehow leads to another catastrophe—or in the hyperbole of an official at the FBI’s National Threat Center, “it’s the one you don’t take seriously that becomes the 9/11.”

It is an expensive, exhausting, bewildering, chaotic, and paranoia-inducing process. At times, in fact, it seems to be an exercise in dueling delusions: a Muslim hothead has delusions about changing the world by blowing something up, and the authorities have delusions that he might actually be able to overcome his patent inadequacies to do so. As Dana Priest and William Arkin have documented in their remarkable book, Top Secret America, by 2009 there were something like 1,074 federal government organizations and almost 2,000 private companies devoted to counter-terrorism, homeland security, and intelligence spread over more than 17,000 locations within the country. A simple listing of the government’s “Special Operations Programs” runs to 300 pages. Collectively this apparatus has launched far more covert operations in the aftermath of 9/11 than it had during the entire forty-five years of the cold war. A particular comparison might be useful. At least 263 of the agencies devoted to counterterrorism were created or reorganized after 9/11.Since 9/11, some 62 cases have come to light of Islamist extremist terrorism, whether based in the United States or abroad, in which the United States itself has been, or apparently has been, targeted. The total number of real terrorists, would-be terrorists, and putative terrorists populating this set of cases, excluding FBI and police undercover operatives, is around 100. Thus, since 9/11, the United States has created or reorganized more than two entire counterterrorism organizations for every terrorist arrest or apprehension it has made of people plotting to do damage within the country.

The alarmist perspective seems to have been internalized and institutionalized over the years in a great many ways, and it has proved to be notably resistant to counter-information. Important in the process is the “Threat Matrix,” an itemized catalog of all the “threats” needing to be followed up.The Threat Matrix, or selected excerpts from it, forms the centerpiece of the briefings on terrorism the FBI director undergoes each day, and it also undergoes scrutiny at the daily late afternoon briefing presided over by the director of the CIA.And every morning, it would be used to brief the President. According to journalist Garrett Graff, the Threat Matrix “tracks all the unfolding terrorist plots and intelligence rumors” and is “filled to the brim with whispers, rumors, and vacuous, unconfirmed information.” Impelled by what some have called “The 9/11 Commission Syndrome”—an obsession with the career dangers in failing to “connect the dots”—it is in no one’s interest to reduce the length of the list “because it was possible you’d cull the wrong threat and end up, after the next attack, at the green felt witness table before the next congressional inquiry.”As a result, “claims that ordinarily wouldn’t have made it past the intake agent, claims that wouldn’t even be written down weeks earlier, suddenly became the subject of briefs to the President in the Oval Office.” He supplies an example. One entry in the Threat Matrix is crisply cited as “a threat from the Philippines to attack the United States unless blackmail money was paid.” It turns out that this entry was based on an email that said, “Dear America. I will attack you if you don’t pay me 999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 dollars. MUHAHAHA.” Graff reports that the FBI dutifully traced the email’s author and sent information to police in the Philippines, who then paid a visit to the would-be extortionist’s parents. As Graff vividly describes the process, the Threat Matrix could become “all-consuming and paralyzing” and comes off as “a catalogue of horrors,” as the “daily looming prognoses of Armageddon,” and as “a seeming tidal wave of Islamic extremist anger that threatened to unhinge American society.” Jack Goldsmith, an avid consumer of the Threat Matrix when he was in the Bush administration, stresses that “It is hard to overstate the impact that the incessant waves of threat reports have on the judgment of people inside the executive branch who are responsible for protecting American lives.” He quotes CIA Director George Tenet, “You simply could not sit where I did and read what passed across my desk on a daily basis and be anything other than scared to death about what it portended.” This, writes Goldsmith, captures “the attitude of every person I knew who regularly read the threat matrix.” Every person. One insider notes that threat “shadowed us every day,” and that “voluminous and dominating” threat information “contributed to a pervasive sense that every day might bring a new attack.” As another reader puts it, “Your mind comes to be dominated by the horrific consequences of low-probability events.” Another has arrestingly offered a vivid comparison: “Reading the Threat Matrix every day is like being stuck in a room listening to loud Led Zeppelin music,” and after a while, you begin to suffer from “sensory overload” and become “paranoid” about the threat.” And another says, “Think of the goalie at a soccer game who must stop every shot, for the enemy wins if it scores a single goal. The problem is that the goalie cannot see the ball—it is invisible. So are the players—he doesn’t know how many there are, or where they are, or what they look like.”

However, the avalanche of “threats,” combined with the fact that these scarcely ever led to anything, never inspired analysts and policymakers to consider the rather plausible, if arguable, conclusion that there was little or nothing out there to fear—that just maybe the problem is not that the ball and the opposing players are “invisible,” but rather that they actually don’t exist. Instead, the experience caused them—exclusively, it seems—to embrace the dead opposite. “The want of actionable intelligence combined with a knowledge of what might happen,” Goldsmith observes, “produced an aggressive, panicked attitude that assumed the worst about threats.” If you believe in ghosts (like 49 percent of the American public) but have never seen one (like half of these), two plausible explanations are likely to spring to mind. One, you’re not looking hard enough. Or, two, the ghosts are diabolically clever. Counter-terrorists have routinely applied both explanations in their frantic quest to make us safe at taxpayers’ expense. No one, it appears, was given to question the enterprise or its essential premise. In addition, as the CIA’s Richards Heuer notes, one of the factors that influences the “imaginability of scenarios” is “the act of analysis itself,” because “constructing a detailed scenario for a possible future event makes that event more readily imaginable and, therefore, increases its perceived probability.” Thus, it is exemplified nicely by the assertions in congressional testimony by FBI Director Robert Mueller, an avid consumer of the Threat Matrix: “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the U.S. that we have not yet identified” and “I remain very concerned about what we are not seeing.” He did not seek to flesh out the picture by acknowledging, at least for purposes of discussion, that there might be a plausible alternative—that the massive homeland security apparatus in the United States has persecuted some, spied on many, inconvenienced most, and taxed all to defend against a domestic enemy that scarcely exists. Throughout the costly post-9/11 counterterrorism saga, that continues to be the hypothesis that dare not speak its name.

The threat of terrorism in the United States and the West has obviously proved to be far more limited than has persistently been feared. The number of al-Qaeda operatives actually in the country has held at zero or nearly so, and the FBI’s inability to find sleeper cells has persisted to the present day. And Brian Jenkins’ characterization of those terrorists or would-be terrorists the system has picked up seems apt: “their numbers remain small, their determination limp, and their competence poor.” Accordingly, there might have been some judicious re-evaluations, and perhaps even some cutbacks to the funds devoted to dealing with the exaggerated threat. Although the Obama administration that assumed office in 2009 has taken some pains to downplay the rhetoric, one of his advisers, Bruce Riedel, was soon publicly maintaining that the al-Qaeda threat to the country continued to be “existential.” And at a 2011 press conference, Obama’s Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano opaquely, if creatively, announced that, although the likelihood of a large-scale organized attack had diminished, the continued danger of a small-scale disorganized attack meant that there was a “sense” in which it could be said that the terrorist threat was higher than at any time since 9/11. This extraordinary contention failed to prompt a skeptical query from her rapt auditors. The ultimate extension of alarmist thinking about terrorism is to characterize the terrorist threat, as Reidel does, as “existential,” routinely asserting that terrorists somehow threaten to expunge the United States, the modern state, or even civilization itself. Rather amazingly, this extreme expression, which, if accepted as valid, can close off all judicious evaluation of the problem, has only rarely been called into question.When he was Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff went one step further, proclaiming the “struggle” against terrorism to be a “significant existential” one—carefully differentiating it, apparently, from all those insignificant existential struggles Americans have waged in the past.

However, is just possible that things began to change in 2014. In a speech at Harvard University in October, Vice President Joseph Biden offered the thought that “we face no existential threat — none — to our way of life or our ultimate security.”Then, after a decent interval of three months, President Barack Obama reiterated this point at a press conference, and then expanded in an interview a few weeks later, adding that the United States should not “provide a victory to these terrorist networks by over-inflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order.” It is impressive that these utterances—”blindingly obvious” as security specialist Bruce Schneier puts it—appear to mark the first time any officials in the United States have had the notion and the courage to say so in public. Whether that development, at once remarkable and absurdly belated, will have some consequence, or even continue, remains to be seen. Thus, General Michael Flynn, who had recently retired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is given to insisting that the terrorist enemy is “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life” while seeking “world domination, achieved through violence and bloodshed.” It is reported that his remarks, to an audience of “special operators and intelligence officers,” evoked “many nods of approval,” “occasional cheers,” and “ultimately a standing ovation.” Thus even the most modest imaginable effort to rein in the War on Terror hyperbole may fail to gel.

Alarmism about the Atomic Terrorist

An important part of the alarmism has been directed at, and impelled by the prospect of, nuclear terrorism, the most commonly embraced method by which it has been suggested that terrorists would be able to repeat, or even top, the destruction of 9/11. It was in 2004, in his influential book, Nuclear Terrorism—a work Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times found to be “terrifying”—that Harvard’s Graham Allison relayed his “considered judgment” that “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not.” Allison has had a great deal of company in his alarming pronouncements. For example, in 2007, the distinguished physicist Richard Garwin put the likelihood of a nuclear explosion on an American or European city by terrorist or other means at 20 percent per year, which would work out to 89 percent over a ten-year period. Allison’s time is up, and so, pretty much, is Garwin’s. And it is important to the point out that not only have terrorists failed to go nuclear, but in the words of William Langewiesche who has assessed the process in detail, “The best information is that no one has gotten anywhere near this. I mean, if you look carefully and practically at this process, you see that it is an enormous undertaking full of risks for the would-be terrorists.” In fact, terrorist groups seem thus far to have exhibited only limited desire and even less progress in going atomic. This may be because, after brief exploration of the possible routes, they, unlike generations of alarmists on the issue, have discovered that the tremendous effort required is scarcely likely to be successful. It is highly improbable that a would-be atomic terrorist would be given or sold a bomb by a generous like-minded nuclear state because the donor could not control its use and because the ultimate source of the weapon might be discovered. Although there has been great worry about terrorists illicitly stealing or purchasing a nuclear weapon, it seems likely that neither “loose nukes” nor a market in illicit nuclear materials exists. Moreover, finished bombs have been outfitted with an array of locks and safety devices. There could be dangers in the chaos that would emerge if a nuclear state were utterly to fail, collapsing in full disarray. However, even under those conditions, nuclear weapons would likely remain under heavy guard by people who know that a purloined bomb would most likely end up going off in their own territory, would still have locks, and could probably be followed and hunted down by an alarmed international community. The most plausible route for terrorists would be to manufacture the device themselves from purloined materials. This task requires that a considerable series of difficult hurdles be conquered in sequence. These include the effective recruitment of people who at once have great technical skills and will remain completely devoted to the cause. In addition, a host of corrupted co-conspirators, many of them foreign, must remain utterly reliable, international and local security services must be kept perpetually in the dark, and no curious outsider must get consequential wind of the project over the months or even years it takes to pull off. In addition, the financial costs of the operation could easily become monumental.

Alarmism about the atomic terrorist has had its most damaging results when it has been linked with an alarmist perspective about nuclear proliferation. For decades during and after the Cold War, there has been almost wall-to-wall alarm about the dangers supposedly inherent in nuclear proliferation. This perspective has almost never undergone careful examination. In fact, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been far slower than has been commonly predicted over the decades primarily because the weapons do not generally convey much advantage to their possessor. And, more importantly, the effect of the proliferation that has taken place has been substantially benign: those who have acquired the weapons have “used” them simply to stoke their egos or to deter real or imagined threats. This holds even for the proliferation of the weapons to large, important countries run by unchallenged monsters who at the time they acquired the bombs were certifiably deranged: Josef Stalin who in 1949 was planning to change the climate of the Soviet Union by planting a lot of trees, and Mao Zedong who in 1964 had just carried out a bizarre social experiment that had resulted in artificial famine in which tens of millions of Chinese perished. Despite this experience, an aversion to nuclear proliferation continues to impel alarmed concern, and it was a chief motivator of the Iraq War which essentially was a militarized antiproliferation effort in which fears that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, unlike all other nuclear states since 1945, might actually set off such weapons if he got them and/or that Saddam would give them to terrorists. The war that ensued proved to be a necessary cause of the deaths of more people than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Public Opinion

As noted earlier, public alarm about domestic Communism declined only very slowly during the Cold War. The same pattern can be found for public opinion about terrorism in the post-9/11 period. It is probably best to see public opinion as the primary driver in the excessive and somewhat bizarre counterterrorism process that has taken place in the United States since 9/11. Assessing the public reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, anthropologist Scott Atran muses, “Perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.” Poll data suggest that much of that fright continues to linger, at least in the United States, more than a decade after the impelling event. This, even though there has been nothing remotely like 9/11 anywhere in the world and no major attacks (ones inflicting at least 25 deaths) in the United States at all, even though Osama bin Laden has been dispatched, even though official and media alarmism has generally dampened some, and even though an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist under current conditions stands at one in 4 million per year—or one in 110 million per year if only the post-9/11 period is included in the calculation. The American public has come to pay less attention to terrorism as other concerns—the wars in the Middle East and, more lately, the economy—have dominated its responses to questions about the most important problem facing the country. However, poll questions specifically focused on terrorism generally find little decline in the degree to which Americans voice concern about that hazard, although there have been various temporary ups and downs in these trends in response to specific events. There are two patterns. On some questions, concerns soared at the time of the 9/11 attacks, dropped to lower levels in the subsequent few months, but then afterward failed to decline much further. On other questions, levels of concern reached at the time of the attacks continued to remain at much same level in subsequent years.

Alarmism and Deterrence

Alarmists have one great advantage. If their alarm proves to be justified, they will look like prophets. If nothing happens, they can claim that this desirable condition has been the result of efforts their alarmism has inspired. Thus, when New York Police Department Commissioner David Cohen is asked how he knows whether his extensive counterterrorism programs (which have had an almost perfect record of not finding any terrorists) have been successful, he curtly responds, “They haven’t attacked us.” Reporting this comment, reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman note that “the absence of a terrorist attack has been the silver-bullet argument for national security pro-fessionals.” Although it is a “flawed argument” logically, they continue, it has been “nearly irrefutable” politically. The dodge, then, is, (1) we are trying to keep them from attacking; (2) they haven’t attacked; therefore (3) it must be our efforts that have kept them from doing so.
But there at least four objections to this. First, it is not to be expected that there would normally be very many attacks, especially large ones. Although counterterrorism measures vary considerably in their scope and adequacy around the world, terrorism is, and always has been, a rare phenomenon. Even as 9/11 has proved to be an aberration, “terrorism” of late has overwhelmingly taken place in civil war situations, particularly in the Middle East, where one or more sides apply terrorist tactics as an instrument of warfare. However, this has long been a feature of civil warfare. What has changed is not the destructiveness or the effectiveness of such tactics, but that after 9/11 they are have commonly been labeled “terrorism.” Overall, al-Qaeda’s record for violence is scarcely less impressive since 9/11 than it was before that tragedy. The costly maintenance of a no-fly list has doubtless made it more difficult for terrorists to move about internationally, but getting operatives into the United States was already a primary problem for them before 9/11. Moreover, there has not been a great amount of terrorism in Europe even though its Muslim population is large and even though entry and exit are much easier.

Indeed, extremist Islamist terrorism—whether associated with al-Qaeda or not—has claimed some 200 to 300 lives yearly worldwide since 2001 outside of war zones, and that number seems, if anything, to be declining. That’s 200 to 300 too many, of course, but it is about the same number as deaths from bathtub drownings in the United States. Second, the deterrence argument suffers from a special defect as it applies to terrorism. It may well be that certain sets of targets, like airplanes and rural military bases, are so well protected that terrorists have been successfully deterred from attacking them. However, of necessity the world remains full of lucrative terrorist targets that are substantially unprotected. It simply cannot be that competent and dedicated terrorists have been deterred from attacking all such targets by protective or policing measures. Third, the actual terrorist “adversaries” faced in the West scarcely deserve accolades for either dedication or prowess. The alarmist dodge, at once “flawed” and “nearly irrefutable,” beneficially derives from an often-stupendous exaggeration of the determination and capacities of the terrorists. It is posited that our terrorist “adversaries” are at once very capable and hugely dedicated. Since they haven’t yet done much of anything outside of war zones, it is held, it must be that their schemes have been disrupted or deterred by our costly and extensive counterterrorism measures. For the most part, however, Islamist terrorists in the West are a confused, inadequate, incompetent, blundering, and gullible bunch, rarely able to get their act together. To a considerable degree, that conclusion holds even for those international terrorist operators who are routinely labeled “masterminds.” All seem to be far better at frenetic and often self-deluded scheming than at actual execution. It is true, of course, that sometimes even incompetents can get lucky, but such instances, however tragic, are rare. Moreover, for the most part, the consequences of individual successful attacks have been quite limited — scarcely any really do enough damage to be considered “major” and, except perhaps in occasional fantasies, there has been nothing again like 9/11.

Indeed, scarcely any terrorist act before or after 9/11 has visited even one-tenth as much death and destruction, even ones launched in the unpoliced context of civil wars where the conspirators have space, munitions, and time to prepare. And fourth, as Mark Stewart and I have repeatedly shown in our books, Terror, Security, and Money: The Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security and the forthcoming Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism, counter-terrorism security measures generally do not survive a standard cost-effectiveness analysis in which the question is: How many terrorist attacks would have had to occur without the measure in place to justify its cost? Even assuming the counterterrorism measures greatly reduce the risk (the consequences and/or the likelihood) of terrorist attack, and even assuming any terrorist acts successfully consummated would be highly destructive, the cost of most (though certainly not all) security measures has proven to be excessive. For example, it appears that the increase in spending on domestic security measures in the United States would only begin to be cost-effective if the measure deterred, foiled, or protected against three Boston Marathon bombings every week, or more than one attack like the one on the London Underground every month.

Deterrence and the Cold War

In its deterrence form, the counter-terrorism thinking process has a long pedigree. It reached perhaps its greatest height during the Cold War, when the American nuclear force (a.k.a. its “deterrent”) was deemed to be successful because the horror it was designed to deter, a major Soviet military attack, never took place. Left unconsidered was the obvious alternative explanation suggested by George Kennan: “I have never believed that they have seen it as in their interests to overrun Western Europe militarily, or that they would have launched an attack on that region generally even if the so-called nuclear deterrent had not existed.” The absurdity of the situation is poignantly captured in an exasperated comment by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956: “We are piling up armaments because we do not know what else to do to provide for our security.” One thing they might have done would have been to reassess the threat of direct military aggression that the Soviet Union supposedly presented. And, indeed, Eisenhower does seem to have grasped the fundamental reality that the Soviets had no interest whatever in a direct military conflagration. Although he was concerned about what he called “a sort of peaceful infiltration,” he felt, “after many long, long, years of study of this problem,” that “everything is pointing to the fact that Russia in not seeking a general war and will not for a long, long time, if ever.” And it followed that an ever-enlarged military was scarcely required to deter them.
However, Eisenhower never really summoned the political courage to draw this lesson openly and forcefully. Presumably this was because, like officials today who worry about appearing to downplay the threat terrorism is deemed to present, he feared a public opinion backlash. Thus even after leaving office, he chose to flail at the “military-industrial complex” rather than at the faulty and underexamined premise that gave that complex its political potency.

The Fading of Alarm

The grand mistake of the Cold War was to infer desperate intent from apparent capacity. For the war on terrorism, it is to infer desperate capacity from apparent intent. It might be instructive to note as well that, although fears about the danger presented by domestic Communists could be alleviated by the collapse of the perceived grand international Communism conspiracy, the war on terror cannot be so logically ended. Terrorism, like murder, has always existed in some form or another and always will. And, because of the special formlessness, even spookiness, of terrorism’s hostile foreign referent in this case, it may be exceptionally difficult to get people to believe that the threat has really been extinguished—or at least that it no longer is particularly significant. Thus, public fear about terrorism was stoked anew in 2014 with some beheadings of Westerners by ISIS, a vicious and apparently threatening foreign group that had scarcely even been known to exist a year earlier. To the degree that the public remains terrorized, it seems likely to continue demanding that its leaders pay due deference to its insecurities. In the process it will likely uncritically approve extravagant counterterrorism expenditures, including incessant security checks, civil liberties intrusions, and expanded police powers, as well as militarized forays overseas—if not
necessarily full-scale ground assaults—if they can convincingly be associated with the quest to stamp out terrorists who might have the West in their sights. Politicians, officials, and the media have routinely (and irresponsibly) played to and exacerbated these popular anxieties out of a sense of both duty and self-interest. But, as was suggested earlier, the essential impetus is more nearly bottom up than top down.

This blog post is a revised version of John Mueller’s Peace Address,  given at PRIO 1 September 2015,“The Dangers of Alarmism”.

For further reading, John Mueller’s has written several excellent books on the topics discussed here:

As well as the upcoming:

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