Thursday, October 23, 2014

Terrorism and Playing the Fear Card

Updated May 2015

As we know from what happened in the years since September 11, 2001, any threat of terrorist activities results in increased restrictions on the freedoms of us all.   By instilling fear in society, Washington, Ottawa, London and other governments around the world are able to justify all of their actions that are supposedly meant to protect us.  This brought to mind a paper that I had come across entitled "The Terrorism Delusion" by John Mueller and Mark Stewart.  In this posting, I will outline some of the key points in the paper that is quite enlightening when it comes to explaining our current "terrorist-phobic" society and where governments have gone so wrong.

The authors begin by noting that, after September 11th, 2001, many security experts anticipated that there would be dozens of similar attacks over the coming years.  The American security apparatus believed strongly that a second wave of even more devastating attacks was imminent and gave no thought to the premise that the attacks of 9/11 were a lucky aberration for the terrorists.   Over a decade later, on May 1, 2012, the leader who authored the attacks was killed and a virtual treasure trove of documents, hard drives, thumb drives and CD-ROMs were taken from his home, providing the American security authorities with their much-needed detailed plans for further attacks on America and Americans.  In reality, the "mother lode" of data contained little more than complaints from al Qaeda members about a lack of funding, infighting between groups, having to dodge drone attacks and links to pornography.  According to Glenn Carle, a veteran of the CIA, Americans, as a result of the stance taken by their government, have become "victims of delusion" and have a "persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence" when it comes to terrorism.  This belief system has resulted in the spending of trillions of dollars on security for the homeland and has cost tens of thousands of lives in both civilian and military populations.

Despite the fact that it appears that there has been a never-ending succession of sophisticated terrorist attacks or attempted attacks on American soil, here is a listing of the American cases from September 11, 2001 to 2012:

You'll notice that after the case name, there is a single digit number between 1 and 4 that represents the case type.  Here is an explanation of the case types:

1  An Islamist extremist conspiracy or connection that, in the view of the authorities, might have eventually developed into a plot to commit violence in the United States
2  An Islamist extremist terrorist plot to commit violence in the United States, no matter how embryonic, that was disrupted
3  An Islamist extremist plot to commit violence in the United States that was essentially created or facilitated in a major way by the authorities and then rolled up with arrests when enough evidence was accumulated
4  An Islamist extremist terrorist or terrorist group that actually reached the stage of committing, or trying to commit, violence in the United States 

If you go through the list, you'll notice how many of the cases were of type 3, those that were well known to and facilitated by American authorities (i.e. sting operations).  Of the fifty cases, twenty-four or nearly half of the total cases were under the control of the American security apparatus.  Over the 11-year period, only six of the cases actually reached the stage where terrorists either committed or were caught trying to commit violence in the United States.  

While some terrorists have proven that they are relentless in their efforts to send a message to Washington in specific and the United States as a whole, the vast majority of individuals that have been picked up on terrorism charges would be considered inept.  The authors of the case studies listed above used the words "incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, inadequate, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational, and foolish" to describe their subjects.  Many of the plans were wild fantasies that were far beyond the capabilities of those involved.  

In the years since September 11th, there has been only one successful bomb detonation by terrorists at the Boston Marathon in April 2013.  The only successful way that Islamic terrorists have been able to kill Americans is with gunfire; between 2001 and 2012, a total of sixteen deaths took place at the hands of Islamic terrorists, a rather small fraction of the 11,068 gun homicide deaths that took place in the United States in 2011 alone.  

If we look back in history, we can see the same type of justification used in fighting another threat; Communism.  J. Edgar Hoover was rabid in his pursuit of the American Communist Party who, according to him, was working "day and night to further the communist plot in America" and that its objective was "the ultimate seizure of power in America".  Other than the prosecution of thousands of innocent Americans under McCarthyism, the fears and paranoia of the Federal Bureau of Investigation proved to be completely unfounded.

Using the data available on terrorism, the authors calculated that the odds of an American dying at the hands of a terrorist at present rates is about one in 3.5 million per year.  According to the National Weather Service, here are the odds of being struck by lightning:

Governments, particularly after 9/11, have been more-or-less continuously playing the "fear card" when it comes to terrorism, most recently of the ISIS variety.  Governments count on the idea that ignorance and perception will drive our thoughts and emotions.  Terrorism and the fear surrounding it are the perfect tools for governments to implement additional restrictions on our freedoms all in the name of "protecting us" when, in fact, it is government that needs protecting, largely because of their misguided belief that military action will reduce the risk of lighting the fuse of terrorist activities.  This is particularly pertinent for Canadians whose Prime Minister recently made this comment, defending his stance on "a dangerous world" which includes both ISIS and Russia:

"The measure of good government, the true test of leadership lies not in achieving success in times of stability and peace, but in doing so during times of risk and danger.

There's nothing like playing the fear card when you're desperate for votes.  The more acts that government can stick the "terrorism" label on and the more bogeymen that they can convince us are hiding among us, the easier it is for those that we elect to slowly chip away at our freedom and privacy in the name of "protecting us".


  1. Because of the threat of terror, many police actions have been taken and much money spent. Subsequently, there have been few successful terrorist actions, and very few of the sort that were guarded against. What should we conclude? On the face of it, the police actions and money spent seem to have been successful. Yet your conclusion is the opposite.

    Please help us to understand this odd essay.

  2. Will terrorists kill innocent civilians in the years to come? Of course. They did so more than 100 years ago, when they were called anarchists—and a responsible nation-state must take reasonable measures to protect its citizens. But there is no way to completely eliminate terrorism.The challenge that confronts us is how we will live with that threat.

    We have created a massive economy of fear, an industry of fear, a national psychology of fear. Al Qaeda could never have achieved that on its own. We have inflicted it on ourselves. the article below delves deeper into how we have built a massive and expensive industry to strip us of our liberties because of fear.

  3. Gregory

    I believe that the authors of the original paper were trying to tell us that much of what we currently believe about terrorism is a delusion, that there is not a terrorist around every corner but that governments have used irrational fears to justify their actions (i.e. spending trillions of dollars on two wars, spying on their own citizens). By including the list of confirmed terrorist plots, they showed that most of the plots were pipe dreams that had little chance of success and nearly half of them were sting operations undertaken by the nation's security apparatus.

    Here is the authors' concluding paragraph:

    "Whatever the genesis, Americans seem to have internalized their anxiety about terrorism, and politicians and policymakers have come to believe that they can defy it only at their own peril. Concern about appearing to be soft on terrorism has replaced concern about seeming to be soft on communism, a phenomenon that lasted far longer than the dramatic episodes that generated it. In his assessment of the reaction to the September 11 attacks, anthropologist Scott Atran muses, “Perhaps never in the history of human conoict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.”

  4. I wasn't puzzled about what the message was; that was made clear enough. I was puzzled about how the facts discussed were supposed to substantiate this message. The logic appears to be: we go to great lengths to suppress terrorist activities; subsequently there are few terrorist activities; therefore, we needn't have gone to those great lengths.
    Don't you see the problem?

  5. It is a question that we, the people, will never be able to answer however, governments have provided very little proof that we have been under continuous threat that requires them to infringe on our rights, particularly privacy.

    I agree that it is a bit of a conundrum, however, the fact that governments throughout the ages have used fear to control us is without dispute in my mind.

    Thanks for your comments.

  6. One last comment. I guess I'm hoping that, rather than swallowing what our politicians tell us without examining it for motive, people will take the time to think about what they are trying to spoon feed us.