January 23, 2009 7:21AM

Terrorism Hysteria Watch

One aim of the conference we held last week at Cato (watch it here) was to encourage the country to adopt a more grown-up approach to combating terrorism — less fear-mongering, more confidence, or as James Fallows put it, "reclaiming Gary Cooper, not Chicken Little, as our national icon." Chicken-littleism has political causes that we can't change. But pointing out threat inflation should at least make its authors think twice.

To that end, here are three recent examples of officials or the media hyping terrorist capability.

1. Senator Kit Bond, at Dennis Blair's confirmation hearing as Director of National Intelligence, said the following:

Our entire way of life is just a few moments away from annihilation if terrorists succeed in obtaining a weapon of mass destruction.

Nonsense. Our way of life survived various wars, the virtual destruction of a large swath of New Orleans, and other disasters. It would survive even nuclear terrorism. Incidents of chemical or biological terrorism are unlikely to cause mass casualties, although they could, and will not collapse our institutions. The danger to American values comes more from our reaction to terrorism than the thing itself. What's more, these sorts of incidents are not nearly as likely as you generally hear.

Many national security experts and politicians believe that our society is brittle, that even a well-timed cyber attack could cripple our economy and institutions. This idea is akin to strategic airpower theory, which argues that the destruction of a few pressure points can halt a nation's industrial output and cause its surrender. History proves this theory wrong. Industrial societies are resilient. The transition to a more information-based economy makes this doubly true. Information is hard to destroy, for one, living as it does in dispersed networks and brains. Second, lowered communications and transport costs make us less dependent on any particular supplier or region, making recovery from supply disruptions easier. And our wealth provides further insurance against disaster.

2. The Washington Times and the British tabloid The Sun credulously report on a rumor that bubonic plague struck al Qaeda in the Land of the Maghreb, a jihadist outfit in Algeria, after a biological weapons experiment went wrong. What they fail to point out is that, if an outbreak did occur, it was probably a natural occurrence. For more on the factual problems with these articles, see the Armchair Generalist blog (which has been on its own terrorism hysteria watch for the last couple weeks).

3. This story from Government Executive claims that

Terrorists could seize medical equipment that use radioactive isotopes and build dirty bombs that could blanket an area the size of Manhattan, warned a new report from the Defense Science Board.

The article dwells on this possibility without giving any space to plausibility. Dispersing radioactive material (here cesium-137) in a plume that engulfs an area the size of Manhattan would be quite difficult. Nor is it clear that the long-term increase in background radiation would have adverse health consequences in more than a few square blocks. We should certainly worry about such things, particularly given people's reaction to words like "radiation," but articles ought to provide caveats about their scary claims. Sure, it's tough to do so on deadline, but the author could have simply called someone like Henry Kelly.