Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

As They Like It

Are Western intellectuals apologists for terrorism?

The uses of adversity are not always sweet. And there are many books that might properly be tossed into the running brooks and many sermons that read as cold as stone. This is especially true of scholarly discourse in its generally baneful efforts to come to terms with the menacing world outside the leafy precincts of academic thinking. 

A recent case in point is Cas Sunstein’s review in the New Republic of two new books on terrorism and the “terrorism industry”—Robert E. Goodin’s What’s Wrong with Terrorism and John Mueller’s Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. Though moderately critical in places of the anti-administration arguments of these two authors, Sunstein contrives to tilt the balance in their favour, especially with respect to Goodin’s thesis that the American—or rather, Republican—administration is prone to using scare-mongering tactics, to “play[ing] the terrorism card,” in order to obtain political advantage.

The trouble is that Mueller and Goodin are playing their own terrorism cards in order to obtain polemical advantage. The statistical claims they deploy to convince us that the terrorist threat has been highly overrated—and that the problem is really our fearful over-reaction to what amounts to a relatively insignificant casualty count—are a tissue of simple-minded inferences and deductions that rely mainly on the abstract power of comparative numbers. As the old saw goes, “Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say.”

Take those reassuring statistical comparisons that tell us that air travel is far safer than driving. Sunstein himself regards it as given that “driving is more dangerous than flying” and ultimately more destructive than terror attacks. But is this belief warranted? Do we ever stop to reflect how flimsy, even misleading, such quasi-mathematical structures really are? For example, a minor mechanical malfunction in an automobile will likely lead to nothing more than stopping by the side of the road, pulling over to a garage station or simply waiting for a convenient moment to address the problem; a similar malfunction in an airplane may plausibly lead to a hecatomb. 

Were it even feasible to measure reliably the conditions of driving— the number of hours we spend every day in a car, the nature, frequency and duration of these journeys, the various distances travelled, the road and weather conditions, and the number of mechanical malfunctions that may be disregarded without risk—we might well realize that traffic fatalities are remarkably low and airline mortality is comparatively high. Reality does not always comply with our rational delusions.

The same facile assumptions dominate the revisionist discussion of terrorist casualties. The Muellers of this world, I’m afraid, are not so much doing the math as doing the myth. Consider the following aspects of terrorist operations:

The psychological effect of terror

Owing to their spectacular nature and the amount of immediate damage they can do, acts of terrorism are far more conspicuous and, indeed, “terrifying” than random traffic accidents.  Statistics offer no solace and they cannot, no matter how the experts pontificate, diminish the collective feeling of threat and exposure.

Conscious design

Unlike automobile accidents, terrorist events are informed by intent. Three thousand deaths in one hour and in a single circumscribed spot of approximately one square mile—the 9/11 massacre—is a much different kind of event than forty thousand automobile deaths spread out over twelve months and across fifty states, or approximately 3,537,442 square miles, which scarcely registers on the psyche and certainly not in the same way as a terrorist atrocity. The effect of a massive and designed event such as 9/11 is like that of an asteroid slamming into the earth, which doesn’t happen all that often. Once is enough. 

Economic impact

We saw what happened to the airline industry, the tourist trade, the Nasdaq, the export and import enterprise, and oil prices after 9/11. If the London hijackers had succeeded last August in their plot to bring down ten airliners over the Atlantic within minutes of one another, then important sectors of the market would have imploded, and the livelihoods of many people around the world would have been ruinously affected. This is manifestly not the case when we consider what happens on the nation’s highways.

Security “here”

Without increased surveillance (defective and partial as it is at present) the terror ratio would augment dramatically, rendering irrelevent the statistical matrices our revisionist thinkers like to invoke. Moreover, Mueller’s confidence that terrorists may “scarcely exist in the United States” is  misplaced. Clearly, he has not read Steven Emerson’s American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us or seen his documentary film Jihad in America, after which Emerson went into internal exile to escape the attentions of an Islamic death squad.

Security “there”

Many commentators routinely consider the strategy of engaging terrorists on their home ground to be seriously mistaken. What is happening there, they argue, is not happening here, and we can only exacerbate the problem by projecting power into such distant regions. But this is a naïve and shortsighted argument. The Argentine bombings carried out by Iranian agents and their Hezbollah proxies in 1992 and 1994, and the Alas Chiricanas bombing in Panama in 1994 demonstrate that terrorism’s reach is global, as was that of al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in 2001. Attacking the enemy in its bases, training camps, offices and military installations is a costly and bloody venture in the short run, but it is the price we must pay if we are not to go bankrupt in the long run. This is not a fairy tale we are living in. There are no happy endings, only (if we are lucky) less catastrophic ones. 

Rogue nuclear devices

A single attack from a dirty bomb and/or a suitcase bomb would swell casualty counts exponentially, could well infect thousands of others with slow radiation poisoning (striking the next generation in its very genes) and seal off portions of the affected city for up to sixty years. This may be a worst-case scenario, but it is also an eminently possible one. Forget traffic fatalities—the damage that can be done by one such bomb is in a different category entirely. The worldwide economic collapse that might conceivably ensue boggles the mind. The same applies to chemical and biological attacks, especially if the food and water supply are contaminated. Sunstein, Mueller  and others are dead wrong to suggest that the terrorists’ “capacity to inflict harm is sharply limited.” It is not. The argument made here (and elsewhere) that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are difficult to manufacture is casuistical. An article in the Atlantic, “Inside al Qaeda’s Hard Drive” (September 2004) reveals that, back in 1999, bin Laden and his cronies were well on their way to acquiring the expertise necessary to run a biological-and-chemical weapons program. In an email to an associate at that time, prominent al Qaeda member Ayman al Zawahiri noted, “The destructive power of these weapons is no less than that of nuclear weapons.” Paranoia may be the only sane response to the current state of affairs. Playing down Chernobyl as a merely local incident, as Sunstein does to make a point about our propensity to exaggeration, is also frivolous. Deformed children are still being born in that region today, twenty years after the reactor meltdown.

As scientists Peter Zimmerman and Jeffrey Lewis write (National Post, December 20, 2006), it is “perhaps easier to make a gun-assembled nuclear bomb than it is to develop biological or chemical weapons …. The frightening truth is that fissile material, including nuclear explosive material, is an item of commerce….” In 2005 alone, the International Atomic Energy Agency confiscated eighteen lots of stolen plutonium and enriched uranium. There is also the alarming possibility that a nuclear weapon may be pirated intact. What is more, North Korea is exporting both know-how and delivery hardware to the world’s most volatile regimes. Pakistan has long been in the business of disseminating nuclear technology. And should Iran be permitted to arrive at nuclear enrichment, it will have the capacity both to unleash a thermonuclear maelstrom and to distribute such weapons or weapon-components to its terrorist proxies.

Then shall we be news-crammed.

Statistics pertaining to alcohol-related deaths, traffic accidents or even being struck by lightning are supposed to put everything in context. But this only reinforces a kind of dream world. A ton of sarin gas would cause only “between three thousand and eight thousand deaths,” we are told. Can these people be serious? This isn’t bingo. This is moral insanity.

But if one must shuffle numbers about, how about several coordinated sarin gas attacks (or attacks using several different substances) as with the Islamist plan to bring down a fleet of airliners? The death toll might well settle somewhere in the five figure range—which from the evident point of view of our mainstream dissidents. would be trivial compared, say, to the more than 60 million deaths caused by World War II. Deaths numbered in the thousands “can be readily absorbed,” declares the ever-cavalier Mueller. The logic is abominable. I don’t know whether this is infantile thinking or magical thinking, but I do know that it is both shallow and barbarous thinking—if it is thinking at all. The foul body of th’ infected world is not so easily cleansed.

Robert Goodin comes off little better with his argument that those who amplify the terrorist threat for their own purposes must also be accounted as terrorists. This may be true in itself, but the implication is disingenuous since such conjectures are only mind games acted out in an intellectual vacuum, the stuff of conspiracy theories. There is no verifiable proof that our political leaders may be involved in such nefarious practices, whether with respect to Iraq (where every intelligence agency in the world believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs) or homeland  security. Reports faulting the American or British governments in their perhaps over zealous assessments of current geopolitical realities are, in effect, expressions of the collective opinion of often partisan “experts.” The impulse to draw serious attention to the hypothetical possibility of malfeasance—while our real enemies are busy refining their methods and perfecting their weapons—consitutes a hazardous distraction, to say the least; it is the verbal hacky sack of those who have nothing better to do with their time. This is not to say that the motives and tactics of those in power cannot be questioned, but that this is not really the time to doubt their bona fides, and the evidence for a deliberate strategy of misdirection would have to be absolutely ironclad.

Indeed, what we might call the Argument Spurious is a veritable stock in trade of such writers. For Mueller, a radiological attack is not the calamity we think it is. In its aftermath, “medical and civil defense measures can be deployed” and antidotes administered. But the state of preparedness of our responder networks plainly indicates that unmitigated chaos would ensue. For Goodin, we should refrain from magnifying terrorist activities out of proportion, which explains why he praises the British government for its low-key response to the transport bombings. But the truth of the matter is that the British authorities, by and large, like their counterparts in Holland, France and Canada, suffered from an acute failure of nerve and shrunk from implicating the Muslim community in whose midst the homegrown jihadists “lived and recruited and plotted,” as Robert Spencer has pointed out in an article for (August 17, 2006). Thanks to the dogma of political correctness, the M-word was generally taboo and the spotlight for the most part turned elsewhere: “criminals,” “youths,” the “excluded,” the innocently “indoctrinated,” the “socially disadvantaged” were variously responsible for the carnage, the latter as a consequence, it would appear, of a legitimate grievance. The response was not low-key, it was pusillanimous.

The old political maxim “Where you stand depends on where you sit” is apt. Our authors have padded their sitzfleisch in prestigious academic appointments: Mueller on the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security at Ohio State University, Goodin at the Australian National University, and Sunstein at the University of Chicago. A university chair is a sedentary thing; and, as often as not in today’s PC climate, a tenured position is a neural carapace. We should keep in mind that far too many of our intellectual luminaries live in a beta version of reality, a sort of protracted pastoral interlude, which those whose livings are dependent on the trades and the markets should be skeptical of. Ensconced in safe and insular positions where words are the currency of exchange, our savants need not fret if their arguments are not well cut, so long as the words—and numbers—keep flowing. This is as they like it. The burden of lean and wasteful learning sits lightly upon them. They are also liable to forget that the adversary does not quarrel only in print and by the book but by the measuring of swords.

I fear that nothing will convince our intellectuals of the nonsense purveyed in their writing unless their loved ones should be incinerated in one of those terrorist attacks they habitually downplay—or, as in the hit TV series 24, when a nuclear device takes out a suburb of a populous city. Statistics wouldn’t matter much then and neither would consoling fictions. Let us hope it never comes to that.  In the interim, as Albert Camus ruefully states in his Preface to Algerian Reports, “We could have used moralists less joyfully resigned to their country’s misfortune.”