Monday, September 11, 2006

Terrorists under the bed

Since September 11th, 2002, US government officials have constantly been warning of terror attacks on US soil - particularly around election time or when the actions of the administration face scrutiny. But despite these warnings, no such attacks have eventuated. Writing in Foreign Affairs this month, John Mueller asks the obvious question:

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

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

And so the US trembles in fear and erodes its civil liberties, allowing what is effectively imprisonment at the monarch's president's pleasure for "enemy combatants" like Jose Padilla, widespread secret searches, and a domestic wiretapping program, all in the name of fighting an enemy who doesn't really exist. And anyone pointing out that this emperor has no clothes will no doubt be slandered as being "on the side of the terrorists". It's 1984's perpetual war, only in reality, rather than fiction...


Did you read Andrew Sullivan's article in the Sunday Times?,,2092-2350345,00.html

Posted by PabloR : 9/11/2006 01:51:00 PM

I hadn't, but its pretty much what I'd expected from Bush: you either support American torture, or you are withthe terrorists.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/11/2006 02:08:00 PM

There was an old man who got up every morning at 5 am to put white powder on the roads. One morning a policeman asks him: "Sir, what is that you're putting on the road?" The man says, "Why, it's Elephant powder. Keeps them away from the road!" "But..." says the police man, "There are no Elephants this country!" "See", says the man, "It really works!"

Posted by stephen : 9/11/2006 03:07:00 PM

Speaking of 1984, I only recently became aware of this 2002 comment from GWB:

"I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace."

Way to terrorise the intelligensia.

Posted by Lyndon : 9/11/2006 05:35:00 PM

It isn't just an evil bush creating fear for his evil purposes - security is what the people are demanding.

And if the government was to permit terrorism at some acceptable level then that presure might well just continue to grow.

Posted by Genius : 9/11/2006 08:15:00 PM

"security is what the people are demanding"

Assuming that's true, so what? Fear has been an important part of Republican political strategy - we'll protect you! - for several years. That fear is in large part manufactured. And it may be that it is diminishing as people realise the price they are paying for feeling secure. Note that I say FEELING secure. That British beat-up a few weeks ago for example, and the evident stupidity and uselessness of the measures that followed it, are starting to wake people up.

Finally, it's not about permitting a particular level of terrorism - clearly all reasonable effort should be made to prevent, counter and punish it. But the issue is reacting to terrorism in a way that lets it achieve its goals. The more people freak out, the more power they cede to terrorists. It is after all TERROR that they seek to create. If everyone in the West was guaranteed to say (with truth and reason I might add) "hey ho, my risk of a grisly death through a mad bomber is far lower than my risk of being hit by a car today" terrorism would not work.

Posted by stephen : 9/11/2006 10:03:00 PM

OMG! FOX News is the Two Minutes Hate...

Posted by muerk : 9/11/2006 11:25:00 PM

Stephen: lower than the risk of being hit by a meteorite, in fact.

Genius: yes, the American people are demanding security. And one of the reasons they're doing it is becuase the Bush administration has been cranking up the fear to create a false perception of risk for its own political purposes.

How many terrorist attacks were carried out by foreign agents on US soil in the five years before 9/11? None. Zip. Nada. And that was without the PATRIOT Act, without domestic wiretapping and "no-fly" lists, without warrentless searches and political surveillance, and without indefinite detention without trial. Those things aren't keeping Americans safe; Americans are safe from attacks because there are no terrorists on US soil to conduct them.

Look, it is ridiculously easy to stage a terrorist atrocity, particularly if you don't fear getting caught or killed. Roll up in your gas-guzzling 4X4 at the local strip-mall, pop out with your automatic weapons you bought over the counter at Wal-Mart, and let rip. Why hasn't it happened? Not because the tools are out of reach or the intelligence results in groups plotting such attacks being captured (none have) - but because the people simply aren't there. An enormous domestic security apparatus exists to keep Americans safe from an enemy who doesn't really exist.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/11/2006 11:50:00 PM

"Stephen: lower than the risk of being hit by a meteorite, in fact."

It's late, and I'm sleepy, but I hope you're taking the piss...

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 9/12/2006 12:19:00 AM

Graeme: Nope. It's in the article:

"it is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda­like operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000 -- about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor."

Which puts US fears about domestic terrorism perfectly in context. The sky is falling, by Toutatis!

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/12/2006 01:12:00 AM

I'm going to have to slap you here Idiot, as your point is complete bullshit. If there IS a very low chance of the average American being killed by terrorism, it's thanks to the work done by the secret services and intelligence agencies of the US, France, Germany, Israel, Britain, and other Western countries, which have prevented further attacks, and saved many lives. Given that many Muslim nutjobs would happily explode a nuclear warhead in downtown Manhattan/London/Sydney/Tel Aviv/Paris/etc if they could get their hands on one, our relative safety is an overwhelming vote for the competence of our intelligence services. for which no doubt you are thankful.

As for the chances of dying in a terrorist attack being equal to the chances of being hit by a meteor, if you can tell us skeptics here the last time a human being died by being hit by a meteor I'd appreciate it. That you swallowed this ludicrous comparison seems in keeping with a wholesale aversion to critical thought.

Posted by Anonymous : 9/12/2006 12:53:00 PM

Well well.. Look what i found on the web...

"However, as noted earlier, no human in the past 1,000 years is known to have been killed by a meteorite or by the effects of one impacting."

Gee. Talk about spurious comparisons...

Posted by Anonymous : 9/12/2006 01:00:00 PM

Anon: read the article:

"True, there have been no terrorist incidents in the United States in the last five years. But nor were there any in the five years before the 9/11 attacks, at a time when the United States was doing much less to protect itself. It would take only one or two guys with a gun or an explosive to terrorize vast numbers of people, as the sniper attacks around Washington, D.C., demonstrated in 2002. Accordingly, the government's protective measures would have to be nearly perfect to thwart all such plans. Given the monumental imperfection of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, and the debacle of FBI and National Security Agency programs to upgrade their computers to better coordinate intelligence information, that explanation seems far-fetched. Moreover, Israel still experiences terrorism even with a far more extensive security apparatus."

(Emphasis added).

As for the meteor stat, the determining factor is not whether you are hit by a small rock while out walking the dog (an extremely unlikely occurance), but whether you are unlucky enough to be alive when a really large impact occurs. Some have estimated this chance as being as high as 1 in 5000 (which combined with a 1 in 4 chance of dying gives a lifetime chance of around 1 in 20,000), others are more conservative. Mueller's 1 in 80,000 figure is by no means out of the ballpark.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 9/12/2006 01:35:00 PM

From Talkingpointsmemo (

"The point is that al Qaida itself does not pose an existential threat to our civilization. It can kill hundreds or even thousands of us. There's the outside chance of a catastrophic attack perhaps with hundreds of thousands of death, though most of the people Fallows spoke to think that it's far, far harder for al Qaida to get, say, a nuclear device than people imagine, particularly with the reduced means of al Qaida today. But if al Qaida itself doesn't threaten our civilization itself, our possible reactions to al Qaida's threat do. This is a elementary point about assymetrical warfare and the ways that a relatively weak group like al Qaida can leverage our own tremendous power against us."

Posted by stephen : 9/12/2006 02:52:00 PM

The problem I see is that humans reaction to a nuclear strike etc is NOT the variable. you can make a safe bet they will go crazy and want vengance of a huge scale against anything that looks like it might have done it. to prevent taht you need some sort of security - in a sense it isn't us we protect with our security - it's them.

Posted by Genius : 9/12/2006 07:22:00 PM