March/April 2007

Understanding and Responding To the Threat of Terrorism

Policy Forum

Many politicians and pundits today argue that civil liberties must give way to greater security. AtOverblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them, a Book Forum held on December 13, author John Mueller of Ohio State University and commenter James Gilmore III, former governor of Virginia and former chairman of the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, discussed how an incomplete understanding of the terrorist threat can cause civil liberties to be needlessly sacrificed. Congress's recently passed REAL ID Act, which establishes national standards for identification cards, is an example of a policy that some observers say is necessary after 9/11. But at a January 18 Book Forum for Identity Crisis: How Identification Is Overused and Misunderstood, author Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at Cato, argued that the nation should move away from a national ID and toward market-based identification systems.

John Mueller: Terrorism is a threat and there are bad guys out there, but the scope of the threat has been substantially exaggerated, and it is something we can live with and deal with. It is by no means an existential threat to the United States.

On 60 Minutes a few years ago, Michael Moore said that the chance of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small—a fact that is overwhelmingly true. Bob Simon, his interviewer, said, "But no one sees the world like that." In many respects, both statements are true.

Just to give you some context here, one of my friends, an astronomer, has calculated the worldwide chance of anyone being killed by international terrorism outside of war zones over an 80-year lifetime, assuming, incidentally, that every several years there is another 9/11. It comes out to be 1 in 80,000. Since he is an astronomer, he has also calculated the chance of being killed by a comet or asteroid over a lifetime of 80 years, and it comes out to be about the same.

The only way that could change hugely would be if the terrorists were able to obtain weapons of mass destruction. It's extraordinarily difficult to get the right material for nuclear weapons, transport them, and set them up in the right place. Biological weapons are unlikely to kill very many people and are very hard to control. The pathogens have to be spread as an aerosol. Many of them decay, and so forth.

Chemical weapons basically are not weapons of mass destruction. In World War I, they accounted for seven-tenths of 1 percent of the battle deaths. You can also kill people with bullets and ice picks. But weapons of mass destruction have to kill a lot of people in a short period of time with a relatively small number of weapons.

Radiological weapons are sometimes considered weapons of mass destruction. They also are not. Most people writing about them refer to them as weapons of mass disruption. If a radiological weapon went off and if you stayed in the contaminated area for 40 or 50 years nonstop, your chance of getting cancer would increase by one-hundredth of 1 percent, or maybe somewhat more.

My second point is that the costs of terrorism very often come from the fear and consequent reaction or overreaction terrorism inspires. Osama bin Laden said: "It is very easy for us to provoke and bait. All we have to do is wave a flag that says al-Qaeda on it, and the generals rush there. What we are trying to do is spend the United States into bankruptcy." Terrorists hope to cause fear and overreaction. And by becoming too fearful and overreacting, I think we play into their hands.

That was the case even for 9/11. Admittedly, 9/11 was the most costly terrorist event by far in history. But the costs of reaction to 9/11 were greater than the death and destruction. For example, the 9/11 attackers caused an incredibly high economic cost of maybe $40 billion. The Department of Homeland Security's budget for a single year is that big. The attacks, of course, made politically possible a couple of wars in Asia that are going to cost in the trillions of dollars. The huge expenditures by local governments, the military, and all kinds of other people to try to deal with potential terrorism vastly outpace anything the terrorists did on 9/11.

More Americans have died in reaction to 9/11 than died on 9/11. One study indicates that the number of Americans who died between September 11, 2001, and the end of that year because they drove rather than flew in safe airplanes was more than 1,000. In addition, the war in Iraq alone, which was made politically possible by 9/11, has killed far more Americans, military and civilian, than died on 9/11.

There are also opportunity costs. If every passenger is required to wait an additional half-hour at the airport, how much does that cost the economy over the course of a year? The number comes out to be something like $8 billion to $15 billion, by various estimates.

The third point is that policies should focus as much on reducing the fear and anxiety as inexpensively as possible as they do on reducing the rather limited dangers terrorism is likely to actually pose.

Early on, the Department of Homeland Security was ordered to come up with a list of probable terrorist targets in the United States. Since there are an infinite number of targets in the United States, including this room, that strikes me as an exercise in futility.

Let me give you a quick outline of certain policies that seem to me to be reasonable. One is a certain amount of policing to get the terrorists, particularly international policing, which seems to have been comparatively successful.

Another would be to try to deal with the nuclear weapons issue. I think the possibility of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons is incredibly small. But I would not mind at all if it were even smaller. Not because the probabilities are very high but because obviously a huge amount of damage could be done should terrorists get their hands on nuclear weapons.

There can also be efforts to reduce costs. Do we really need to spend practically a billion dollars a year on air marshals who are supposed to prevent hijackings of airliners, something that is probably impossible given what happened on the fourth plane on 9/11? The passengers and crew will not allow it to happen.

Despite U.S. overreaction, the campaign— I much prefer that word to "war"— against terror is generally going rather well. Let me give you a quote from Stephen Flynn, who writes a lot about terrorism. He opened an article in Foreign Affairs a couple of years ago with this statement: "The United States is living on borrowed time and squandering it." And at the end he said, "The entire nation must be organized for the long, deadly struggle against terrorism."

In the middle, however, he said: "How much security is enough? When the American people can conclude that a future attack on U.S. soil will be an exceptional event that does not require wholesale changes in how they go about their lives."

It seems to me that, by that standard, we are very secure.

James Gilmore: I am here to congratulate John Mueller on his wonderful study. His book adds a great deal to the analysis of and thinking about terrorism in the world today, and I certainly would recommend it.

I agree that there needs to be a sense of perspective about terrorist attacks in the United States. But do not kid yourself here. We saw the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. We saw the attack on Khobar Towers. We saw the attack on the USS Cole. And we saw the attacks, of course, on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon. There is a very real possibility that the enemies of this country could get into this country and launch another attack.

This is not to say, however, that the book is wrong. We have to have some sense of proportion here. The enemy would like to create fear in the United States, fear that causes us to overreact, fear that causes us to diminish our civil freedoms, fear that causes us to enter into unwise foreign policy commitments or initiatives that in the end do severe damage to this nation.

Fear comes from misestimating what the damage might be and exaggerating the potential threat. We have a duty to understand what the threat actually is and to take that into consideration, instead of imagining things that are unlikely.

There are many elements in our free society that work against us in the war against terrorists. I have decided to start talking about "war on terrorists" now as opposed to "war on terror." We have seen terror throughout human history. We are specifically dealing here with real people who are terrorists. We have to understand them and what they are in fact doing.

I am a recovering politician, but I may fall off the wagon again soon. Politicians who are responsive to the people in a true republic or democracy have to be very cautious. The American people expect that we will do all that is reasonable to keep them secure.If the enemy gets in here and sets off a bomb and kills people, the politicians do not want to be blamed. That is the reality of the world we live in. And, as a result of that, you hear a lot of flamboyant language and see a lot of reaction and a lot of money.

If the enemy gets in here and sets off a bomb and kills people, the politicians do not want to be blamed. That is the reality of the world we live in. And, as a result of that, you hear a lot of flamboyant language and see a lot of reaction and a lot of money.

A lot of reckless comments are made in the government and in the media. We live in an entertainment society. News is now available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is an advantage for the American people. They now have a menu of information that they never had before. But there is competition within the news industry for entertainment. There is every incentive in the world to be flamboyant and exaggerate, which has dangerous policy implications for the country.

The duty, in my view, falls to the public. This war against terrorists creates an opportunity for public virtue that we have not seen for a long time. It is the duty of the people of the United States to educate themselves and make judgments on their own as to the merit, value, weight, and significance of the war on terror and what has to be done.

There is a sense today of tradeoff. If we are going to give up our privacy or our freedoms in return for more security, we ought to understand the true nature of the threat.

As a matter of policy, I believe the challenge of statesmanship is to keep the American people secure and free and to not accept a tradeoff. We have come too far to be trading off the freedoms of the people of the United States at this point.

Yes, security people will say, "Well, gee, if we tell you the truth, then the enemy will hear it." But the fact is that there is a greater good here. And that is the opportunity to educate and inform the American people, who are the citizens that we speak for. At the end of the day, they cannot exercise public virtue unless they have evidence and facts and information.

I agree that the enemy cannot bring down this republic nor do injury to any of our liberties that we have fought for all through our days. Only we can do that to ourselves. We have a duty to remember that great founding father Benjamin Franklin, who warned us at the beginning of this great experiment that is American that they who would sacrifice liberty in return for security are entitled to neither freedom nor security.

Jim Harper: I think many of us have it in our guts that we do not want to have a national ID. But why is that? Why is it important for a free country to avoid a national ID?

In the past, we shared information about ourselves with organizations, individuals and governments, and the information was collected, perhaps on paper, and then the paper was deposited in a file somewhere. So, we shared that information; it was in theory maybe even publicly accessible, but it was very difficult to get to. It was practically obscure.

With digital technology, practical obscurity is declining. More and more information is collected electronically, stored electronically, and easily accessible, easily sharable, because of digitization. This is not an unalloyed bad thing, of course. We get a lot of benefits from it. But it is an important change in the social, political, and economic contexts of our lives. And it is something to enter into very carefully.

The first reason we should want to resist national identification, or any kind of uniform identification system, is that such systems hasten the decline of practical obscurity. We will over time move to a society in which more things about us are known. And we have to digest this change at an appropriate pace. But if we are forced into this change too quickly, we will not be able to take the steps that are necessary to protect our interests in anonymity—the interests that keep us free to act the way we want to act; our interest in anonymity for political purposes; our ability to speak freely, to resist, to criticize authority, and so on— because information is power.

The decline of practical obscurity and the rise of surveillance, for good or for bad, have important consequences in terms of an individual's relationship to government. A related concern with national IDs is the power that identification systems give to institutions.

Now, many people object—and they are entitled to—to corporate manipulation. But I am much more concerned with government power to access people. If the government knows where you are, if it knows where your assets are, if it knows how to reach you, and if it knows how to grab you, it is in a much better position to come after you. The government does not have to go through the difficulties that it traditionally did.

Large databases about people change the incentive structure that law enforcement and national security agencies face. This is overly simplistic, of course, but, traditionally, law enforcement agencies have been asked to investigate crimes. They have learned of something bad happening or something bad about to happen, and they have gone after that. More and more, with data available about everybody, they will be in a position to investigate people.

It is a small change. It is happening gradually. But it is a very important change that is a threat to our society and our freedoms. Places like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and apartheid South Africa all had very robust identification systems. True, identification systems do not cause tyranny, but identification systems are very good administrative systems that tyrannies often use.

So avoiding a national identification system is a bulwark against tyranny. If our identity systems are difficult to navigate, that provides us security against broken democracy. I am very proud of our government and our system, but we should take care to protect ourselves by adopting failsafe mechanisms like the absence of a national identification card.

Finally, there is the individual insecurity that national ID and uniform ID systems bring us. And that is best exemplified by identity fraud.

One of the reasons why such fraud is so easily engaged in is the fact that a Social Security number is pretty much the only key that one needs to access people's financial lives. Because the system is so simple and economically efficient, it is also efficient for criminals. They navigate the system easily and use the SSN, plus one or two other identifiers, to break into people's financial lives.

All of us are used to securing our physical assets with six, eight, or ten different keys. Why on earth we would want to secure our intangible lives with one single key, I do not know. Many technologists, and of course governments, think that a single key is great. Single-key systems work very well for institutions, but they do not necessarily secure us.

As soon as you are willing to put your home, your office, your safe deposit box, your bike lock, your gym key, and your desk key all onto one and ask the government to issue that one key, you will be okay with the national ID. But until then, we need to think more in terms of diversification of identification systems.

You cannot stop technology from advancing. There is no plausible "stop the world, I want to get off" argument. We all agree that the train tracks we are on now toward a national ID are the wrong tracks, and we are agreed on slowing or stopping that. But I make an argument in my book for switching us to another track, which is to foster a diverse, competitive identification system.

Right now, you can conceive of identification as an economic and social service. Telecommunications and credit reporting are both network services that are very valuable to society. They are also privately provided.

Identification and credentialing are a monopoly service provided by government. What you get when you have a monopoly provider, especially a government monopoly provider, is a far more expensive and poorerquality product than you should get.

I think that is illustrated well by government- issued ID, which is essentially uniform. You cannot decide which identifiers you want to use. You cannot decide when you want to present your ID and to whom. There aren't the diversity and competition that you get when you shop for something in the market. We need a competitive identification and credentialing market for many reasons, including protection of privacy and civil liberties.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2007 edition of Cato Policy Report