Tag: Terrorizing Ourselves

Eleven Years after 9/11, Terror Effects Persist

A couple of years ago, Cato published a book, Terrorizing Ourselves, that critically examined American counterterrorism efforts.

Since that time, the United States was able to put Osama bin Laden to rest. But even this dramatic and yearned-for development, already the stuff of fable, hasn’t been able to temper the level of self-terrorization in the American public.

I’ve been sorting through poll data about terrorism from 9/11 to the present day. Although there are some temporary bumps and wiggles in reaction to events during the course of those 11 years, there has been very little, if any, decline in the degree to which Americans express anxiety about terrorism.

That is, for the most part there has been little change since late 2001 in the numbers who say they are worried that they will become a victim of terrorism, consider another major attack in the near future to be likely, are willing to trade civil liberties for security, have confidence in the government’s ability to prevent or to protect them from further terrorism, or think the United States is winning in the war on terrorism.

I have written a fuller account here in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. And there are some more extensive ruminations on what I call the “terrorism delusion” in the current International Security. That article deals with the exaggerations of the threat presented by terrorism and with the distortions of perspective these exaggerations have inspired—distortions that have in turn inspired a determined and expensive quest to ferret out, and even to create, the nearly nonexistent. It also supplies a quantitative assessment of the costs of the terrorism delusion.

Several of the poll trends I use for my conclusions are posted here.

As the Inquirer piece points out, the lack of change is quite remarkable given that no Islamist terrorist has been able to detonate even the simplest of bombs in the United States, there has been no sizable attack in the country, bin Laden is dead, alarmist hype coming out of Washington has declined (though Harvard continues to give it the old college try), and an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year.

I conclude in the Inquirer piece that it seems to suggest that the public is

likely to continue uncritically to support extravagant counterterrorism expenditures including incessant security checks, civil liberties intrusions, expanded police powers, harassment at airports, and militarized forays overseas if they can convincingly be associated with the quest to stamp out terrorism.

Both pieces use a quote from anthropologist Scott Atran: “Perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many.” Much of that fright, it appears, has proven to be perpetual.

Wanna-be Mass. Terrorist Incompetent, Lacked Resources

The media has again provided us with a breathless report of a terror plot. This time it’s a 26 year-old Massachusetts man, Rezwan Ferdaus, who planned to fill three remote controlled airplanes with explosives and then fly them into the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol.

Ferdaus’s accomplices were FBI agents. As with many past cases, the FBI agents were crucial to his plot. Without the FBI’s men, money, and “explosives,” there is very little chance that Ferdaus could have successfully committed an act of terrorism.

Ferdaus, broke and living with his parents, had a plan that should make us question his mental competence. He planned to fly two remote-controlled airplanes, each packed with five pounds of explosives, into the Pentagon using GPS-guidance, and another similarly loaded plane into the U.S. Capitol’s dome, which he apparently thought would cave in. Following that, he would somehow destroy the bridges at the Pentagon complex and a six-man team armed with AK-47s would attack the complex. Whom he would recruit with the ability to launch such an audacious assault is not clear. The affidavit never identifies a non-FBI accomplice. At one point, Ferdaus says that he told a friend about his idea, but that his friend declined to participate and suggested that it would be easier to shoot up a military recruitment center. So, absent FBI assistance, Ferdaus’s plan would have been impossible until he had found several more willing participants.

Another impediment was money. Ferdaus purchased only one of the remote control planes for a total of $7,500, which was provided by the FBI. He needed several thousand dollars more to buy the other two. Ferdaus even needed the FBI’s help to pay the $450 fee for a rental facility where he planned to store his material and construct his bombs.

Even if Ferdaus had succeeded in finding others and buying the planes and other necessary electronics, he would still have needed to create a proper explosive that could be detonated at precisely the right time. He initially planned to use several grenades that would have had their pins pulled exactly three seconds before impact using a “detonation servo” device. He later decided to use “plastic explosives,” or C-4, as long as it was “obtainable.” As directed, the FBI undercover agents provided him with 25 pounds of C-4, only 1.25 pounds of which was real. They also delivered six fully-automatic AK-47s.

Wanna-be terrorists face numerous obstacles to success, starting with their own incompetence. We should applaud the FBI’s investigative zeal but keep in mind that without them, Ferdaus probably wouldn’t have launched an attack, let alone succeeded in it. Here we have a ”Darwin Award nominee,” not the hypercompetent home-grown terrorist the authorities keep telling us to expect. Saying so is a way to avoid being terrorized.


Bathtubs, Terrorists, and Overreaction

I dislike our national obsession with anniversaries and tendency to convert solemn occasions into maudlin ones; to fetishize perceived collective victimization rather than simply recognizing real victims. That kept me from joining in the outpouring of September 11 reflection, now mercifully receding. But I have reflections on the reflections.

The anniversary commentary has, happily, included widespread consideration of the notion that we overreacted to the attacks and did al Qaeda a favor by overestimating their power and making it easier for them to terrorize. Even the Wall Street Journal allowed some of the bigwigs they invited to answer their question of whether we overreacted to the attacks to say, “yes, sort of.”

Unsurprisingly, however, the Journal’s contributors, like almost every other commentator out there, did not define overreaction. It’s easy and correct to say we’ve wasted dollars and lives in response to September 11 but harder to answer the question of how much counterterrorism is too much. So this post explains how to do that, and then considers common objections to the answer.

That answer has to start with cost-benefit analysis. As I put it in my essay in Terrorizing Ourselves, a government overreaction to danger is a policy that fails cost-benefit analysis and thus does more harm than good. But when we speak of harm and good, we have to leave room for goods, like our sense of justice, that are harder to quantify.

Cost-benefit analysis of counterterrorism policies requires first knowing what a policy costs, then estimating how many people terrorists would kill absent that policy, which can involve historical and cross-national comparisons, and finally converting those costs and benefits into a common metric, usually money. Having done that analysis, you have a cost-per-life-saved-per-policy, which can be thought of as the value a policy assigns to a statistical life—the price we have decided to pay to save a life from the harm the policy aims to prevent.

Then you need to know if that price is too high. One way to do so, preferred by economists, is to compare the policy’s life value to the value that the target population uses in their life choices (insurance purchases, salary for hazardous work, and so on). These days, in the United States, a standard range for the value of a statistical life is four to eleven million dollars. If a policy costs more per life saved than that, the market value of a statistical life, then the government could probably produce more longevity by changing or ending the policy. A related concept is risk-risk or health-health analysis, which says that at some cost, a policy will cost more lives than it saves by destroying wealth used for health care and other welfare-enhancing activities. One calculation of that cost, from 2000, is $15 million.

In a new book, Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security,* John Mueller and Mark Stewart use this approach to analyze U.S. counterterrorism’s cost-effectiveness, generating a range of estimates for lives saved for various counterterrorism activities. I haven’t yet read the published book, but in articles that form its basis, they found that most counterterrorism policies, and overall homeland security spending, spend exponentially more per-life saved than what regulatory scholars consider cost-effective.

That is a strong indication that we are overreacting to terrorism. It is not the end of the necessary analysis however, since it leaves open the possibility that counterterrorism has benefits beyond safety that justify its costs. More on that below.

Objections to this mode of analysis have four varieties. First, people have a visceral objection to valuing human life in dollars. But as I just tried to explain, policies themselves make such valuations, trading lives lost in one way for lives lost in another. So this objection amounts to an unconvincing plea to keep such tradeoffs secret and make policy in the dark.

Second, people challenge the benefit side of the ledger by arguing that terrorists are actually far more dangerous than the data says. Analysts say that weapons of mass destruction mean that future terrorists will kill far more than past ones. One response is that you should be suspicious anytime someone tells you that history is no guide to the present. It tends to be the best guide we have, for terrorism and everything else. Our analysis of terrorists’ danger should acknowledge that the last ten years included no mass terrorism, contrary to so many predictions. Another response is that one can, as Mueller and Stewart have, include high-end guesses of possible lives saved to show the upwards bounds of what counterterrorism must accomplish to make it worthwhile. The results tend to be so far-fetched that they demonstrate how excessive these policies are.

A third objection is to claim that some counterterrorism costs are actually terrorism’s costs. Government should spend heavily to avoid terrorism, this logic says, because our reaction to the attacks we would otherwise fail to prevent will cost far more. In other words, if an expensive overreaction is inevitable, it helps justify the seemingly excessive up-front cost of defenses.

One problem with this objection is that it approaches tautology by treating a policy’s cost as its own justification. See, for example, Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent response to John Mueller’s observation in the Los Angeles Times that more people die annually worldwide from bathtub drowning than terrorism and the article’s suggestion that we might therefore be overreacting to the latter. Goldberg argues, essentially, that we have to overreact to terrorism lest we overreact to terrorism. Then, after his colleague James Fallows points out the logical trouble, Goldberg, without admitting error, switches to argument two above, while failing to acknowledge, let alone respond to, Mueller’s several books and small library of articles shooting that argument down.

Another problem with the inevitable overreaction argument is that overreaction might happen only following rare, shocking occasions like September 11. Future attacks might be accepted without strong demand for more expensive defenses. Moreover, the defenses might not significantly contribute to preventing attacks and overreaction.

The best objection to Mueller and Stewart’s brand of analysis is to point out counterterrorism’s non-safety benefits. The claim here is that terrorism is not just a source of mortality or economic harm, like carcinogens or storms, but political coercion that offends our values and implicates government’s most traditional function. Defenses against human, political dangers provide deterrence and a sense of justice. These benefits may be impossible to quantify. These considerations may justify otherwise excessive counterterrorism costs.

I suspect that Mueller and Stewart would agree that this argument is right except for the last sentence. Its logic serves any policy said to combat terrorism, no matter how expansive and misguided. We may want to pay a premium for our senses of justice and security, but we need cost-benefit analysis to tell us how large that premium now is. Nor should we assume that policies justified by moral or psychological ends actually deliver the goods. Were it the case that our counterterrorism policies greatly reduced public fear and blunted terrorists’ political strategy, they might indeed be worthwhile. But something closer to the opposite appears to be true. Al Qaeda wants overreaction—bragging of bankrupting the United States—and our counterterrorism policies seem as likely to cause alarm as to prevent it.

*Muller and Stewart will discuss their book at a Cato book forum on October 24. Stay tuned for signup information.

(Cross-posted from TNI’s The Skeptics.)

Investigate All Air Travelers, Say Experts in Dog Food Rebranding

Washington Post staff writers Anne Kornblut and Ashley Halsey cite “experts” six times in a story today about the nascent pendulum swing in airport security policy back toward government investigation of travelers.

“[M]ore than a dozen U.S. officials, lawmakers and experts interviewed said they would like to move to a system that relies more on passenger data than on airport checkpoint screening,” they write. “[I]f the security system were allowed to access even more — such as personal information collected by companies that do credit ratings — suspicious passengers would be more readily identified, experts say.”

Without irony, they cite these methods as a way of closing gaps in current airport security. But no system would be quite so gapped as a system of mass investigations. As I wrote recently with regard to the “Trusted Traveler” notion, which has the same provenance:

[P]recisely what biographical information assures that a person is “good”? (The proposal is for government action: it would be a violation of due process to keep the criteria secret and an equal protection violation to unfairly divide good and bad.) How do we know a person hasn’t gone bad from the time that their goodness was established?

Kornblut and Halsey have turned up what appears to be a new idea by citing only experts who have not thought through the weaknesses, due process issues, and privacy costs in identity-based security. Mass investigation of air travelers is rebranded dog food. We don’t need to run to the bowl and drive our snouts into it.

Continuing the canine analogy, note how much tail-chasing there is in airport security policy. Kornblut and Halsey write:

[P]assengers must surrender sharp objects (a response to the Sept. 11 attacks) and slip off their shoes (a response to the 2001 would-be shoe bomber). They must remove liquids from their bags (a result of a 2006 plot to blow up planes), and, as of a few weeks ago, they must submit to body scans or pat-downs (a process accelerated by the attempted airline bombing last Christmas Day).

Terrorists can throw new tactics at us endlessly, causing us each time to add billions more in spending and undercut our liberty and prosperity.

The reason for the tail-chasing is the formulation reported in a companion piece to the main story:

“The terrorists just have to get it right once. The people who are trying to stop them can get it right 99.9 percent of the time and then when something happens, people get upset and want to vote out of office the people they hold responsible.”

It’s nice to see this formulation racheted back to where terrorism threatens politicians. In other versions, the success of any attack has been treated as a threat to the whole nation—an “existential” threat, no less. But even as to politicians, it’s not a given of terrorism that “they only have to get it right once.” It’s only true if politicians (lie to us and) promise that terrorists will have zero successes, treating our nation as so fragile and weak that the fragile-America prophecy self-fulfills.

The alternative is to adopt a national mind-set of indomitability rather than fragility. It is risk acceptance when the costs of risk avoidance are too high.

Cato has hosted true experts on terrorism and counterterrorism at two significant conferences, one in January 2009 and another in January 2010. A good framework for re-thinking counterterrorism policy can be found in the Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It.

Strip-Search Machines as the Downfall of the ‘War on Terror’

Here’s Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot on NBC’s Meet the Press:

I think the danger here is that the public begins to revolt against these kinds of security procedures. And then you risk losing public support, not just for airport screenings, but for the whole war on terror and the whole national security regime post-9/11.


The “danger” Gigot is talking about is that the government might lose control of counterterrorism policy, ceding that control back to a frustrated and increasingly restless American populace. The “War on Terror” theme supports a host of policies—most acutely, these airport searches—that are at best unexplained by the goverrnment and likely not merited by actual security conditions. As I noted in an earlier post, in seven billion domestic passenger trips over the last decade, there have been zero bombings. Yet we are to be searched like prison inmates at the whim of the TSA. That simply doesn’t comport with common sense.

(Top government officials and people I know and respect sometimes say things like, “If you knew what I’d learned in secret briefings … .” I don’t accept these assertions. Just like in a courtroom, facts not put into evidence are not facts in the public debate either. “War on Terror” secrecy policies are a failing pillar of post-9/11 security policy.)

There is not real danger in shifting from today’s overreactive, fear-based security regime to one that exploits terrorism’s many weaknesses to secure the country cost-effectively, confidently, and consistently with Americans’ liberty and prosperity. The Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It, contains the thinking that undergirds a new, better approach.

Fear Can Affect Thinking, But Not This Time

In his Washington Post op-ed this morning, “Obama Underappreciation Syndrome,” Charles Krauthammer mocks President Obama’s latest explanation for his, and his party’s, low popularity. “[W]e’re hard-wired not to always think clearly when we’re scared. And the country is scared,” explains the president.

This is rich loam for derision. “Opening a whole new branch of cognitive science – liberal psychology – Obama has discovered a new principle: The fearful brain is hard-wired to act befuddled, i.e., vote Republican.”

Krauthammer rightly takes the campaigning president to task. But he scopes his critique a bit broadly. It’s pretty close to uncontroversial that the logic centers of the brain shut down when certain stimuli produce a fright response. That’s good. Leaping at the sight of a snake was an important part of surviving in the thousands of years before ambulances and anti-venom.

But not all stresses produce this response, and President Obama is misapplying the fright response to the current climate of unemployment, expanded government control of society, and galloping spending and debt. The fear response doesn’t explain Democrats’ unpopularity.

But it does explain other parts of our policy discourse. There is at least a good argument—one we featured in our book Terrorizing Ourselves—that fear preempts careful, rational cogitation about some risks. The existence of another human animated to kill you in ways you can’t predict can interfere with the mental responses we need to secure both ourselves and the blessings of liberty. There may be chronic fear-based habits; the brain grows to meet the demands of its host.

But none of this relates to the economic and political stresses of today or the related woes of the Democratic Party. Rather, it is economic and political conditions that voters are responding to, in a manner that is by no means illogical or pathological.

John Brennan on Countering Terrorism

Earlier today, I attended a lecture at CSIS by John Brennan, a leading counterterrorism and homeland security adviser to President Obama. His speech highlighted some of the key elements of the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in advance of tomorrow’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS).

I hope that many people will take the opportunity to read (.pdf) or listen to/watch Brennan’s speech, as opposed to merely reading what other people said that he said. Echoing key themes that Brennan put forward last year, also at CSIS, today’s talk reflected a level of sophistication that is required when addressing the difficult but eminently manageable problem of terrorism.

Brennan was most eloquent in talking about the nature of the struggle. He declared, with emphasis, that the United States is indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, but not at war with the tactic of terrorism, nor with Islam, a misconception that is widely held both here in the United States and within the Muslim world. He stressed the positive role that Muslim clerics and other leaders within the Muslim community have played in criticizing the misuse of religion to advance a hateful ideology, and he lamented that such condemnations of bin Laden and others have not received enough exposure in the Western media. This inadequate coverage of the debate raging within the Muslim community contributes to the mistaken impression that this is chiefly a religious conflict. It isn’t; or, more accurately, it need not be, unless we make it so.

I also welcomed Brennan’s unabashed defense of a counterterrorism strategy that placed American values at the forefront. These values include a respect for the rule of law, transparency, individual liberty, tolerance, and diversity. And he candidly stated what any responsible policymaker must: no nation can possibly prevent every single attack. In those tragic instances where a determined person slips through the cracks, the goal must be to recover quickly, and to demonstrate a level of resilience that undermines the appeal of terrorism as a tactic in the future.

I had an opportunity to ask Brennan a question about the role of communication in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy. He assured me that there was such a communications strategy, that elements of the strategy would come through in the NSS, and that such elements have informed how the administration has addressed the problem of terrorism from the outset.

This was comforting to hear, and it is consistent with what I’ve observed over the past 16 months. Members of the Obama administration, from the president on down, seem to understand that how you talk about terrorism is as important as how you disrupt terrorist plots, kill or capture terrorist leaders, and otherwise enhance the nation’s physical security. On numerous occasions, the president has stressed that the United States cannot be brought down by a band of murderous thugs. Brennan reiterated that point today. This should be obvious, and yet such comments stand in stark contrast to the apolocalytpic warnings from a few years ago of an evil Islamic caliphate sweeping across the globe.

Talking about terrorism might seem an esoteric point. It isn’t. Indeed, it is a key theme in our just released book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. Because the object of terrorism is to terrorize, to elicit from a targeted state or people a response, and to (in the terrorists’s wildest dreams) cause the state to waste blood and treasure, or come loose from its ideological moorings, a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy should aim at building a psychologically resilient society. Such a society should possess an accurate understanding of the nature of the threat, a clear sense of what policies or measures are useful in mitigating that threat, and an awareness of how overreaction does the terrorists’s work for them. The true measure of a resilient society, one that isn’t in thrall to the specter of terrorism, is the degree to which it can conduct an adult conversation about the topic.

We aren’t there yet, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and by what I heard today.