Blind Terror, Dumb State

Earlier this month coming back to Delhi after a month long trip to Argentina, my wife, who is a US citizen and has had ten-year multi-entry visas for India ever since we married nearly 40 years ago, was not allowed to board the flight from Heathrow as she was returning less than two months since her departure from Delhi, in early April. Despite my loud protests that there was no such restriction on her visa, she had to return to London, and after some pulling strings got a stamp on her passport to re-enter India signed by the Indian High commissioner. This ‘new’ visa policy, is of course the government’s response to the David Headley affair and, as with so many responses in the ‘war on terror’, it is fighting the last war. The draconian screening of airline passengers did not prevent a Nigerian student from concealing a bomb in his underpants across airline scanners in three airports as late as December 2009. So, now airline passengers have to virtually strip to board a plane. What are the costs and benefits of these growing restrictions on personal liberty and increase in state power?

When the ‘war on terror’ was launched in 2001, John Mueller (now at Ohio State University) and I wrote papers on this issue for a book edited by Richard Rosecrance and Arthur Stein (No More States, Rowman and Littlefield, 2006). The direct costs to the US economy were miniscule ($100 billion — less than 0.8 per cent of its GDP).The most serious costs were the increase in the uncertainty associated with doing business, and from preventive measures taken as an overreaction to the terrorist threat. Thus, apart from the direct costs of homeland security, there are the costs imposed on travellers in terms of the opportunity costs of the time lost in security searches at airports. These were estimated in 2002 to be $16 and $32 billion annually for the US. A more recent estimate by Mueller and Mark Stewart (at Newcastle University in Australia) of these indirect costs to US travellers between 2002 and 2011 was $417 billion. Wilst the direct costs of extra homeland security was $690 billion. This expenditure would only have been cost effective, they estimate, if it had prevented or deterred four attacks every day like the one foiled in Times Square in New York.

Neither are the personal risks that citizens face from terrorism serious. Since 1960 till 2001, based on the US State department data, Mueller estimated that the number of Americans killed by international terrorism (including 9/11) is about the same as the number killed over the same period by lightning, or by accidental deer, or by severe allergic reaction to peanuts. While, including both domestic and international terrorism, “far fewer people were killed by terrorists in the entire world over the [20th century] than died in any number of unnoticed civil wars during the century” (pg 48).

What about the fears of future terrorist attacks using stolen chemical, biological and nuclear weapons? Of these, for various reasons, the danger of a ‘dirty bomb’ using stolen fissile materials is the most pertinent. Biological and chemical weapons are not easy to use by private agents. The damage from a ‘dirty bomb’ would be localised to the real estate in the area which was made radioactive. The personal danger from the likely 25 per cent increase in radiation over background radiation in the area is miniscule. “A common recommendation from nuclear scientists and engineers” notes Mueller, “is that those exposed should calmly walk away” (pg 62).

The costs of actual and potential terrorism have thus been considerably overblown. Worse, the ‘war on terror’ by inducing the unjustified panic which the terrorists seek to create, foster their aim of creating terror. Worse, by extending State powers and emasculating civil liberties they promote the very illiberal societies and ‘police’ states the jehadis themselves seek. A ‘terror industry’ develops with the same rent-seeking purposes as so many other state-sponsored attempts to create ‘risk free’ societies. Terrorism will always be with us. But, as for instance, given the known risks from driving, which causes over 40,000 deaths every year in automobile accidents in the US, Americans have not stopped driving. But, with the hysteria and panic created by the much smaller number of deaths from terrorism, they (and increasingly many across the world in liberal democracies) are willing to devote scarce resources to chasing horrendous phantoms. They would do better to remember the words of an earlier President.” The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

How should the terrorist threat be dealt with? For many years I lived in London during the IRA’s terrorist operations. The IRA not only succeeded in nearly killing Margret Thatcher and most of her cabinet in the Brighton bombing, but successfully launched a missile into John Major’s cabinet room during a meeting. But during these Irish troubles, the British continued to follow the advice in an official Second World poster (to be issued in case of a German invasion): KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. They dealt with the IRA terrorists by hunting them down through the usual intelligence methods and incarcerating or killing them. Meanwhile, the economic chaos and insecurity the IRA caused in its ‘homeland’ — Northern Ireland — plus the growing realisation of the failure of terrorism to achieve its aims, led to the political settlement contained in the Good Friday agreement.

In dealing with the undeniable state-sponsored Pakistani terrorism in India, a similar policy is relevant. The only long-term solution is to change the Pakistan army’s calculus that it can succeed in destroying India (or its economy) through its jihadi agents. As this tiger it has unleashed, increasingly turns( as it has) against its sponsors, and the growing distance between its citizens in a stagnant and those in the booming Indian economy becomes apparent to its people (as is happening), the ‘rent seeking’ soldiers might at last realise that it is in their interests to complete the deal, which Musharaff nearly completed with Dr Manmohan Singh. Meanwhile, intelligence remains vital in apprehending and forestalling ISI-sponsored terrorists. But this is not done through heavy handed suppression of civil liberties. When,with information from Western intelligence agencies, about the co-ordinates of suspicious boats moving to Bombay, along with mobile numbers of some terrorists, Indian intelligence failed to forestall the 26/11 attacks, it is absurd to believe that they can forestall future terrorist plots by preventing my 70-year-old American wife from coming back to India, a month after she had left our New Delhi home

Deepak Lal is the professor of international development studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.