Terrorized by ‘War on Terror’

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, argues that the phrase “war on terror” has “created a culture of fear in America” which is wasting billions of dollars, innumerable man hours, and aiding the terrorists.

The culture of fear is like a genie that has been let out of its bottle. It acquires a life of its own — and can become demoralizing. America today is not the self-confident and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor; nor is it the America that heard from its leader, at another moment of crisis, the powerful words “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; nor is it the calm America that waged the Cold War with quiet persistence despite the knowledge that a real war could be initiated abruptly within minutes and prompt the death of 100 million Americans within just a few hours. We are now divided, uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event of another terrorist act in the United States itself.

This is a too-nostalgic view of the past and a bizarre view of the present.

We responded to the 9/11 attacks every bit as forcefully as we did Pearl Harbor.

FDR was responding to the Great Depression, not a series of assaults on the homeland, when he uttered the famous phrase about fear. Regardless, President Bush repeatedly told the public that we would persevere and that they should go on with their own lives. Indeed, he’s been repeatedly criticized for failing to call on the citizenry to make sacrifices. (See Joe Katzman‘s essay “War As A Spectator Sport” from this morning for an updated take.)

We had all manner of ridiculous panic during the Cold War, including the nonsense bout a “missile gap” that caused us to race the Soviets to the moon, proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, people building bomb shelters in their back yards, and nonsensical drills where children were taught that they could survive nuclear Armageddon by cowering under their desks.

Conversely, most of us are incredibly cynical now about color coded terror alerts and the various silly security procedures enacted to protect us against them. Who among is panicking and worried about the next terror attack? I live in the Washington, D.C. metro area, the most obvious target of such an attack, and have no sense that we’re at war except when I enter an airport or certain buildings.

That is the result of five years of almost continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror, quite unlike the more muted reactions of several other nations (Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, to mention just a few) that also have suffered painful terrorist acts. In his latest justification for his war in Iraq, President Bush even claims absurdly that he has to continue waging it lest al-Qaeda cross the Atlantic to launch a war of terror here in the United States.

Those countries suffered isolated attacks by domestic terrorist groups. None suffered anything like the scale of the 9/11 attacks, let alone repeated attacks by foreign terrorists. And, indeed, why is the idea that al Qaeda could attack on American soil “absurd.” They already have. Multiple times.

Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum. The terror entrepreneurs, usually described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence, sometimes even with blueprints for their implementation.

There’s not much doubt about this. Then again, acting as if the possibility of terrorist attacks doesn’t exist is hardly a viable option.

That America has become insecure and more paranoid is hardly debatable.

The hell it isn’t. Indeed, if by “America” you mean its 300 million-odd citizens, the idea is laughably absurd. How many people do you know that are seriously worried about terror attacks on a day-to-day, let alone hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute basis?

I’ve flown in and out of Dulles airport, launching point for two of the 9/11 planes, dozens of times over the last five years. I’ve never had the sense that anyone was particularly worried about anything but missing their flight, too small seats, or screaming babies. Most view the security checks as, it best, an annoying inconvenience that one must endure.

A recent study reported that in 2003, Congress identified 160 sites as potentially important national targets for would-be terrorists. With lobbyists weighing in, by the end of that year the list had grown to 1,849; by the end of 2004, to 28,360; by 2005, to 77,769. The national database of possible targets now has some 300,000 items in it, including the Sears Tower in Chicago and an Illinois Apple and Pork Festival.

That ain’t fear, Zbig, it’s politics.

Just last week, here in Washington, on my way to visit a journalistic office, I had to pass through one of the absurd “security checks” that have proliferated in almost all the privately owned office buildings in this capital — and in New York City. A uniformed guard required me to fill out a form, show an I.D. and in this case explain in writing the purpose of my visit. Would a visiting terrorist indicate in writing that the purpose is “to blow up the building”? Would the guard be able to arrest such a self-confessing, would-be suicide bomber? To make matters more absurd, large department stores, with their crowds of shoppers, do not have any comparable procedures. Nor do concert halls or movie theaters. Yet such “security” procedures have become routine, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and further contributing to a siege mentality.

This is CYA at work, not a show that we’re genuinely scared. Is it kabuki? Yep. Should we stop it? Yup. But companies, let alone government agencies, that don’t adopt these procedures assume massive liability in the incredibly unlikely event a terrorist attack does happen.

Government at every level has stimulated the paranoia. Consider, for example, the electronic billboards over interstate highways urging motorists to “Report Suspicious Activity” (drivers in turbans?). Some mass media have made their own contribution. The cable channels and some print media have found that horror scenarios attract audiences, while terror “experts” as “consultants” provide authenticity for the apocalyptic visions fed to the American public. Hence the proliferation of programs with bearded “terrorists” as the central villains. Their general effect is to reinforce the sense of the unknown but lurking danger that is said to increasingly threaten the lives of all Americans.

Have you ever watched local television during tornado season? Hurricane coverage? Car chase coverage? The Anna Nicole Smith, Jean Benet Ramsey, O.J. Simpson, Natalie Holloway, and dozens of similar stories? That’s tabloidization and low culture, not paranoia.

The atmosphere generated by the “war on terror” has encouraged legal and political harassment of Arab Americans (generally loyal Americans) for conduct that has not been unique to them. A case in point is the reported harassment of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for its attempts to emulate, not very successfully, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Some House Republicans recently described CAIR members as “terrorist apologists” who should not be allowed to use a Capitol meeting room for a panel discussion.

Dude. I’m no fan of AIPAC but CAIR ain’t no AIPAC.

The record is even more troubling in the general area of civil rights. The culture of fear has bred intolerance, suspicion of foreigners and the adoption of legal procedures that undermine fundamental notions of justice. Innocent until proven guilty has been diluted if not undone, with some — even U.S. citizens — incarcerated for lengthy periods of time without effective and prompt access to due process. There is no known, hard evidence that such excess has prevented significant acts of terrorism, and convictions for would-be terrorists of any kind have been few and far between. Someday Americans will be as ashamed of this record as they now have become of the earlier instances in U.S. history of panic by the many prompting intolerance against the few.

Not much argument there. We’re fighting a stateless enemy and haven’t figured out how to do it. The existing rules of the game don’t work because this isn’t pure “war” nor is it simply “crime fighting.” The natural course of action for governments, let alone bureaucracies designated to ensure Homeland Security, is excess.

Phil Carter agrees with Brzezinski, at least at the high level:

It strains reason to include a Pork Festival on a list of high-value targets that Al Qaeda might hit within the U.S. But such are the decisions engendered by nearly six years of rudderless policy in this area. To paraphase Sen. Barack Obama, I’m not against all anti-terrorism measures — I’m against stupid ones. It’s been clear to me for some time that we were doing a great deal in the anti-terrorism arena, but not accomplishing very much. The reorganization of federal agencies into DHS, the passage of multiple omnibus legislative packages, the whole 9/11 Commission process — these were all acts of Kabuki theater, done more for symbolic value than operational reasons. The results have been telling.

I agree completely. I though creating DHS was nuts, federalizing airport security guards idiotic, and think subjecting citizens to invasive searches without probable cause not only pointless but unconstitutional (see Mark Kleiman on the latest outrages in that department).

Again, though, that’s the natural outgrowth of the political process. Politicians have a natural instinct to try to “do something” when there’s a big screw-up in order to appease the public. Assembling blue ribbon panels to investigate is virtually always a part of that as is bureaucratic reorganization. It’s annoying and sometimes even dangerous; it’s almost unavoidable, however.

Brzezinski closes:

Where is the U.S. leader ready to say, “Enough of this hysteria, stop this paranoia”? Even in the face of future terrorist attacks, the likelihood of which cannot be denied, let us show some sense. Let us be true to our traditions.

Such a leader would be destroyed by demagogic TV spots and debate one-liners. A platform of “less security” isn’t going to sell.

FILED UNDER: Public Opinion Polls, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    That America has become insecure and more paranoid is hardly debatable.

    I dunno … imagine if, 5 or 10 years before 9/11, torture had been disclosed as secret gov’t policy.

  2. Ugh says:

    I do love the “no cell phone use” signs in place at immigration/customs when coming into the U.S. these days. This despite the fact that the last time I flew into Dulles internationally (a) as soon as the plane landed the cell phone calls began; and (b) this continued on the dumb people mover mobiles they use for transport in Dulles.

    Anyone have any idea what these rules are trying to accomplish?

  3. Tlaloc says:

    The hell it isn’t. Indeed, if by “America” you mean its 300 million-odd citizens, the idea is laughably absurd. How many people do you know that are seriously worried about terror attacks on a day-to-day, let alone hour-by-hour or minute-by-minute basis?

    Where have you been, Mr. Joyner? Seriously you are way off base here. In the last six years how often has terrorism been a major part of the president’s SOTU? In the last six years how many idiotic terrorism alerts have we had? In the last six years how many idiotic terror protection schemes have we had (think duct tape and plastic wrap)? When was the last time you were allowed to take nail clippers on your flights? Shampoo? Remember the arab americans being thrown off a plane because they prayed to mecca before hand?

    And this doesn’t even go into the war in Iraq, the government’s acceptance of torture and rejection of geneva rights, the CIA’s constellation of secret facilities, and “aggressive rendition.”

    If you take a look around you’ll find the original argument was dead right: we have become much more paranoid and insecure.

  4. Andy says:

    Those countries suffered isolated attacks by domestic terrorist groups. None suffered anything like the scale of the 9/11 attacks, let alone repeated attacks by foreign terrorists.

    This is just wrong.

    The Madrid train bombings were of comparable scope to 9/11. With nearly 200 dead and 2000 injured, the per capita casualties in Spain exceeded that of America’s in 9/11.

  5. Cernig says:

    Andy has a point, James.

    And let’s remember that the dead don’t care whether it was international or domestic terrorists who set the bomb. Should I remind you that the only honest-to-goodness terrorist WMD ever found in the US was in the possession of white supremacist Robert Krar? Where do you think the distinction matters in terms of actual security measures on buildings and airports?

    The UK mainland, for instance, lived through far worse in terms of daily danger during the decades of the IRA’s bombing campaign without the current level of security paranoia.

    It seems obvious to me that fear is being used as a tool by those who love power too much and want to extend their grasp on that power – both in the US and abroad.

    Regards, C

  6. James Joyner says:

    But, a group named the Borgen Project points out to us that helping the poor would actually help economically.

    You should note that you work for the Borgen Project when posting such things.

  7. James Joyner says:

    And let’s remember that the dead don’t care whether it was international or domestic terrorists who set the bomb.

    Sure. But it has a different impact. The US didn’t go nuts with security matters after the Oklahoma City bombing, either.

  8. Andy,

    I believethat your statement, ‘The Madrid train bombings were of comparable scope to 9/11. With nearly 200 dead and 2000 injured, the per capita casualties in Spain exceeded that of America’s in 9/11. ‘ is in error.

    Spain has a population of about 40 million. The US has a population of about 300 million. The Madrid bombings produced 191 fatalities. The 9/11 bombings produced 2973 fatalities (not including the 19 hijackers). Do the math and you see the US suffered twice the fatalities per capita. I had trouble finding reliable injury numbers for 9/11 (some said as low as 215 ‘serious injuries’, which doesn’t jive in scale with the casualties or with the over 1000 injuries from the first WTC attack).

    So how would you justify your claim that Spain’s per capita casualties exceeded the US?

  9. JohnG says:

    I don’t see how throwing money at Sudan would do anything helpful. The only thing that would actually impact what’s happening in Sudan is to put an army on the ground, kick the Arab paramilitaries out of the Black African areas and then keep the army between the Arabs and Africans. And by ‘an army’ I mean the US military, because I think we all know what happens when you put a UN force on the ground when the bullets start flying (answer – they hide in their barracks while the people they are supposed to protect get lined up against a wall). We have problems finding the political will to do this in Iraq, where we created the situation in the first place.

    I would put “throw money at the problem” in with other do something responses that make people feel better without actually affecting the problem.

  10. Tano says:

    “Such a leader would be destroyed by demagogic TV spots and debate one-liners.”

    Thanks for reminding us of how the GOP operates to maintain the hysteria.

  11. Andy says:

    So how would you justify your claim that Spain’s per capita casualties exceeded the US?

    Casualties include fatalities and (typically, only serious) injuries.

    A factor of 2 in the number of deaths per capita clearly indicates that they are of similar scale, and Spain had many times more wounded per capita (the equivalent of 15,000 Americans).

    So I think it is basically ridiculous to say that no other (Western) country has experienced terror on such a scale.

  12. JAW says:

    James:
    You say that the US didn’t “go nuts” after the Oklahoma bombing. Could that be because our political leaders at the time did not exploit it for all it was worth for years afterward?

  13. JohnG says:

    Perhaps people reacted differently with regards to the Oklahoma bombing because there was no evidence that it was carried out by a vast terrorist network who had repeatedly attacked the US in the past and made videos declaring war on the US. Then again, I guess the belief in a vast terrorist network which desires to destroy the US could be seen to be another symptom of the paranoia now gripping the nation.

  14. Andy,

    I would agree that a factor of 2x puts them roughly on the same scale. But you specifically said that the Spanish casualties exceeded the US casualties on a per capita basis.

    Can you please provide where you got your 9/11 injured rate to justify this? At a minimum, the fatality casualties where half the US (on a per capita basis), which is far from exceeding the US.

  15. Ugh says:

    Can you please provide where you got your 9/11 injured rate to justify this? At a minimum, the fatality casualties where half the US (on a per capita basis), which is far from exceeding the US.

    Isn’t this a bit silly, would the US have reacted any differently if only, say, 1,500 had died on 9/11?

  16. sami says:

    We responded to the 9/11 attacks every bit as forcefully as we did Pearl Harbor.

    Huh? Mr. Joyner, your entire critique is suspect when you make such a bone-headed assertion. Are you being facetious?

    We responded to 9/11 by helping a ragtag army overthrow a bunch of religious zealots while everyone else just kept shopping. No ramped-up draft. No war bonds. Just the drum beat of the politics of fear. End of story.

  17. M1EK says:

    “We responded to the 9/11 attacks every bit as forcefully as we did Pearl Harbor.”

    Citizens of Saudi Arabia, for the most part, funded, planned, and then carried out the 9/11 attacks.

    How forcefully have we responded? Well, we invaded Iraq.

    Why should the Republicans ever be trusted with the power of the military ever again?

  18. Bandit says:

    People throwing hissy fits about how paranoid other people are – you gotta love it.

  19. […] I don’t plan on trying to fisk Dr. Brzezinski’s op-ed.  There are any number of such posts about—James Joyner’s is a good place to start. […]

  20. Ugh,

    Andy introduced a fact and used it as justification for a position. The fact struck me as wrong, did a quick bit of checking and saw that the numbers don’t back his assertion that on a per capita basis, the Spanish casualties exceeded the US casualties.

    The point isn’t what would have happened if twice as many or half as many people had died. The point is that in rational debate facts should have substance. When you use false facts it distorts the debate.

    But to your point, there are obviously different reactions to different levels of attacks. As an example, the USS Panay was attacked with out warning and sunk by the Japanese. The US did not respond like Pearl Harbor. Likewise, WTC I killed fewer people and we didn’t respond like after 9/11. So obviously the size of the loss can affect how we respond. And given that part of the response is a gut level response, the circumstances has as much impact as the casualty rate.

  21. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Andy, those must have been gold plated train cars to be worth anywhere near what the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were worth. If Zbigniew Brzezinski had done his job, Carter would have supported our ally, the Shaw of Iran. Saddam would never have attacked Iran with its U.S. ally, and if he would have had the temerity to invade Kuwait, he would have been crushed. Al Qaeda would not have a home in Iran. Suffice it to say the world would be quite different. Chances are, if Carter had been a strong President the USSR would have stayed out of Afghanistan and there would be no al Qaeda, no Taliban and no war on terror. Thank Jimmy and Zbig.

  22. Andy says:

    Andy introduced a fact and used it as justification for a position. The fact struck me as wrong, did a quick bit of checking and saw that the numbers don’t back his assertion that on a per capita basis, the Spanish casualties exceeded the US casualties.

    How many people were injured on 9/11?

    9/11 was notable in part because there were relatively few serious injuries compared to the number of fatalities. The number of payouts from the 9/11 fund for injured persons was 2,680.

    Admittedly, I am not including chronic diseases that have developed in the aftermath, but at the time of the attack, on a per capita basis, several times more people were injured in the Madrid bombings than on 9/11.

  23. Andy,

    I think the use of payouts from the victim fund is not a reasonable number to use to determine the number of injured. First, 40% of applicants to the fund were denied recompense. That doesn’t mean they weren’t injured, just that they didn’t meet the funds criteria. Second, there are over 6000 people suing who were injured but did not file in time to be considered for the fund. Over 10,000 people have filed workman’s comp just for the WTC attack claims for 9/11. This of course doesn’t include those who were injured in the pentagon, who would have filed a workman’s comp in another state or who didn’t have a workmans comp case (e.g. kids or tourists).

    In short, I think your rhetoric has gotten ahead of your facts in saying the Spanish causalities exceeded the US casualties on a per capita basis.

  24. andrew says:

    Watching the Left wage war on the Bush Administration through a combination of hysteria and paranoia not seen for a very long time while accusing others of doing the same is priceless.

  25. Andy says:

    So, john, what you’re saying that is that, with your speculative numbers, there were still many more casualties in the Madrid attacks?

    Hmmm.

    Anyway, let’s break it down: You claim 10,000 comp claims. I’d like to see a source.

    There were only 1,200 within two years, plus an additional 800 related claims.

    As I made clear, I was not accounting for long term, chronic issues that may have developed. But after two years, there were not 10,000 claiming to be directly injured by 9/11. 3000 9/11 fund payouts, 2000 state claims, potentially lots of overlap between these groups. I’m not seeing anything close to the 15,000 population equivalent that were directly injured by the Madrid attacks.

    Anyhow, Joyner claimed that other nations haven’t suffered a 9/11 scale attack. Clearly wrong.

  26. bains says:

    Let’s see, Brzezinski lays out all the dire implications and negative consequences of what he calls a “culture of fear…” No way he is using fear to motivate!

  27. James Joyner says:

    Anyhow, Joyner claimed that other nations haven’t suffered a 9/11 scale attack. Clearly wrong.

    I said “Those countries suffered isolated attacks by domestic terrorist groups. None suffered anything like the scale of the 9/11 attacks, let alone repeated attacks by foreign terrorists.”

    That’s certainly true. The Madrid attack was domestic and killed a 191 people.

  28. Andy says:

    If by “domestic” you mean Islamic radicals from North Africa and Syria who were living in Spain, then yes, you’re quite correct.

    Of course, by your definition, the Saudis who attacked us on 9/11 were domestic because they lived here before the attacks.

    So, well, that’s fairly silly.

  29. James Joyner says:

    Of course, by your definition, the Saudis who attacked us on 9/11 were domestic because they lived here before the attacks.

    Well . . . no. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by foreign terrorists who traveled to the United States specifically to carry them out. Further, they were planned and supported by a foreign based group.

    In contrast, the Madrid bombings were local:

    The 2004 Madrid train bombings (also known as 11-M, 3/11, 11/3 and M-11) consisted of a series of coordinated bombings against the Cercanías (commuter train) system of Madrid, Spain on the morning of 11 March 2004, killing 191 people and wounding 2,050. The perpetrators were Islamists extremists. mostly of North African origin. Spanish nationals who provided the explosives were also arrested

    […]

    Judge Del Olmo assigns the responsibility to “local cells of Islamic extremists inspired through the Internet”,[64] not GIA or Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. These local cells would consist of hash traffickers of Moroccan origin, remotely linked to an al-Qaeda cell already captured. These groups would have bought the explosives (dynamite Goma-2 ECO) from low-level thiefs and police and Guardia Civil confidents in Asturias using money from the small-scale drug trafficking.[65]

  30. Andy says:

    I think we’re having a serious reading comprehension problem here.

    “The perpetrators were Islamists extremists. mostly of North African origin.”

    “These local cells would consist of hash traffickers of Moroccan origin, remotely linked to an al-Qaeda cell already captured.”

    None of these people sound like native born Spaniards. They are only local in the sense that they operated in Spain, sometimes in concert with Spaniards. They are not al Qaeda, but they are clearly inspired by al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. And they are clearly not domestic terrorists like ETA.

    Also, your claim that there have not been multiple attacks in other countries is also simply wrong.

    Less than a month later, on April 3, 4 terrorists died in a suicide explosion, killing 1 and wounding several police.

    So, in summary, you wrote:
    “Those countries suffered isolated attacks by domestic terrorist groups. None suffered anything like the scale of the 9/11 attacks, let alone repeated attacks by foreign terrorists.”

    On the other hand, in actuality:
    Spain suffered multiple terror attacks, conducted by foreign Islamists, that produced more casualties on a per capita basis than 9/11.

  31. HighPlainsJoker says:

    JohnG:
    The “vast terrorist network” is contained within Iraq, says the bushie administration. What’s with the “world wide”?

    Seriously, I believe ZB is correct to assert that fear has been used excessively by the bush administration, to its political gain. Actions to secure our nation have been neglected. The money is going to Iraq for a war of George’s personal choosing and political manipulation, not the security of the US.

  32. Geordie says:

    Surely the problem is: we’re not afraid enough. We need more fear, not less. We need to be terrified 24/7. The West needs to live in a permanent cold sweat about what could happen next. We need to fight not just a long war, but a perpetual one. How else will we be able sleep at night.

  33. Geordie says:

    ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant.