"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." ― H.L. Menken
There are three distinct groups who benefit from terrorism ― terrorists, the media and politicians. For their crimes terrorists get the publicity they crave. They count on the enthusiastic cooperation of the media for maximum effect. They are never disappointed. Killing the innocent is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In the words of terrorism expert Bryan Jenkins, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”
The media want our attention too. They get it in spades from terrorism. Fear sells. Blood sells. Explosions sell. We are enthralled with the details of mass murder. Like kids around a campfire, we love being scared. Fantasies about a death more violent, romantic and heroic than the one we will probably have are irresistible, no matter how small the chances of such a death may be. The media eagerly feeds our fantasy.
The biggest winners in the terror game are politicians. They sow fear in fields heavily manured with patriotic hype and reap a bumper crop of power. President Bush’s wish to end terrorism is surely sincere, but just as surely September 2001 saw his approval rating increase more than that of any president in history. No wonder he is doing everything he can to provoke more attacks. His political success is utterly dependent on his preemptive war against the physically elusive but politically ideal enemy he calls “terrorism.”
An un-winnable War on Terror is the perfect vehicle for the limitless expansion of government and the destruction of freedom. Terrorism isn’t an enemy. It’s a tactic. Fighting “terrorism” is like waging war on “the ambush” or “camouflage.” A tactic, particularly a cheap and easy one, won’t disappear because some fighters are killed. Terrorism will always be available to every flavor of fanatic. The WOT is straight out of Orwell’s 1984, a perpetual war for perpetual peace.
From the government’s perspective, terror-as-the-enemy has the added advantage of not being very dangerous. I don’t wish to trivialize the deep tragedy of any terrorist murder or the need for reasonable caution, but terrorism, with the rare exception of the 9/11 attacks, has not been particularly destructive of lives or property. Except for 2001, terrorists worldwide have never killed more than a few hundred people in any given year.
The record prior to 2001 was an airplane explosion that killed 329 people in India 20 years ago. A poison gas attack in ‘95 in a Japanese subway left 12 dead and made the news everywhere. Terrorists murdered seven people with cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in 1982. Those deaths generated over 125,000 news stories. Frenzied reporting of terrorist murders creates what Lief Wenar of the University of Sheffield has accurately called “a false sense of insecurity.” Terrorists are doing little damage, but a lot of people are watching.
In most years the number of people who drown in bathtubs in the U.S. has been larger than the number killed worldwide by terrorists. If we count only American terror deaths over the last 50 years, including 9/11, you are more likely to be stung to death by insects than to die at the hands of terrorists. We would have to suffer a 9/11 attack every month for terrorism to claim as many American lives as car wrecks.
Even with federal inspectors making sure air travelers are as helpless as newborns, the chance of a repeat 9/11-style hijacking is remote. Those attacks succeeded on surprise. Knowing what we know now, passengers will fight. Pilots won’t give up control of their aircraft.
If we were serious about preventing hijackings we would stop frisking our grannies and allow passengers to be at least as well armed as a typical high school student. Sensible airline security would include questions like, “Would you like to sit in the Armed or Unarmed section?” Passengers carrying guns would get free frangible ammo with their peanuts and ginger ale.
Terrorism is simply not dangerous enough to harm very many of us. The supply of suicide bombers will always be small and self limiting. Terrorism by itself cannot destroy our freedom. Terrorism succeeds only if it terrorizes. It succeeds only with our help. We help by giving in to irrational fear and accepting the government’s absurd premise that our only hope for safety lies in submitting to total disarmament and constant surveillance.
Since 2001 Americans have been as helpful as Boy Scouts to terrorists. We have made a good start at destroying our way of life with the USA Patriot Act, the Transportation Safety Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and recently, the oxymoronic Intelligence Reform Bill. We are only an attack or two away from shuffling around like prisoners in the exercise yard with official government bar codes tattooed on our forearms. No indignity is too great, no violation of privacy too degrading if it keeps us from being struck by lightning.
Terrorism can destroy our way of life only by scaring us into destroying it ourselves ― scurrying around like panicked sheep every time we hear a distant wolf howl. It’s not too late to notice it is the shepherds who are howling.