Your lecture of the week this week is Michael Huemer on the way in which thinking about politics makes us suddenly stupid:
I can’t say I agree at the end there. When the entire media gives a very limited spectrum of acceptable opinion, it is probably the case that everyone is misinformed, not just one side…
In reflection on the points surrounding terrorism, Michael Rozeff adds worthy words:
The first thing to understand about terrorism against America is that it is negligible. Horrible as it was, the destruction of the Trade Towers was an outlier, that is, an event that lies way, way outside the main body of terrorist activity. It is no comfort to the dead, the injured and to their loved ones to point this out, but it is something that must be understood because failure to understand the realities of terrorism has led Americans to support aggressive war policies that are highly destructive of innocent lives and societies overseas and do not diminish the threat of terrorism. These immoral and unjust policies have increased the numbers of terrorists dedicated to destroying American life. As a negative bonus, they have undermined the economy and freedoms of America, thereby causing an untold increase in hardship among Americans now and in the future.
The war on terror has been a terrible mistake. Terrorism against America was never so big that it required a war against it, much less a world wide war that made hash out of the Bill of Rights, militarized police and turned the country sharply in the direction of a police state.
The concept of a “war on terror” drastically alters America’s role in the world by inserting the U.S. into numerous complex and long-running international conflicts in other countries. There are many terrorist groups that operate in foreign countries that have agendas associated with political and religious issues. The war on terror thrusts the U.S. into these conflicts with several notable results. America gets involved in endless political strife and warfare overseas. Government fails to address America’s own problems with consequent undermining of America’s advancement. The costs of government rise exponentially with consequent undermining of America’s economy. The U.S. government enhances its domestic policies of repression and abridgement of rights and freedoms.
Terrorism in America is not the kind of problem that is ameliorated by war. Police work, while open to sharp criticism, has been the mainstay of foiling terrorist plots. Erik J. Dahl has constructed the largest known sample of thwarted terrorist plots in his article “The Plots That Failed”. He has found 176 failed and thwarted terrorist plots against American targets between 1987 and 2010 or 24 years. He broke this down as follows.
73 overseas and 103 domestic,
42 right-wing and extremist plots and 126 jihadist plots,
29 plots that targeted diplomatic facilities abroad and 35 that targeted American military bases, personnel and facilities both here and abroad.
There were 57 plots in 24 years that were domestic and jihadist.
What stops terror attacks from succeeding? Of 176 cases, 9 were called off by the terrorists themselves and another 15 were attempted and failed. This includes instances in which the FBI prolonged the attempt and brought it to near fruition with fake bombs and such, but most of these failures were overseas. There are 24 cases in which the causes of the failure can’t be determined from available information; most were overseas.
This leaves 128 cases, of which 89 were domestic and 39 overseas. Of the 89 domestic plots, 66 were foiled as a result of undercover agents, informants and tips received from members of the public. Dahl says that this “appears to be the most effective counterterrorism tool for breaking up domestic plots.” In many cases, tips lead to the use of informants being placed among the plotters. In the Fort Dix case, for example, the plotters took a training tape to a Circuit City store to have a dvd burned and an employee became suspicious when he viewed the content. Smaller numbers of plots are uncovered by routine police stops for traffic violations, chance encounters with officials who notice suspicious behavior, other behavior such as robbery that draws attention, public threats made by terrorists, information from overseas, interrogation and, finally, “signals intelligence”. Dahl finds that signals intelligence (wiretapping, internet monitoring) is not of major importance in the failed plots that have been detected.
The takeaway from Dahl’s work is that standard spying and analytical intelligence operations to connect the dots and piece together information are not the keys to effective counterterrorism. Past successes have relied heavily on ordinary people noticing activities or behavior that might be oriented toward terrorism. In this sense, it is like any crime detection. Dahl calls it “prosaic” and he quotes a former head of MI5 who says that spies do not develop much counterterrorism intelligence and “My own experience is that effective counter-terrorism frequently begins closer to home and may appear a lot more mundane”.
It is now common for political candidates to be asked about their views on terrorism and the war on terror. Reporters ask nonsensical questions about “winning” the war on terror and how a candidate plans to do this. In 2007, at the National Press Club, Newt Gingrich was asked “what we would have to do to win it [the war on terror] eventually.” Gingrich put on the most serious of faces that he could muster and replied:
“I am really deeply worried. We have two grandchildren who are six and eight, and I believe they are in greater danger of dying from enemy activities than we were in the Cold War.”
Gingrich and many others express deep concerns about something that is a risk, but terrorism is not a serious risk, not something to be deeply worried about, and not something that even comes close to nuclear war.
How does terrorism compare with other risks? In the years 2006 and 2010, there were 70,954 homicides in America. Between 1998 and 2008, 449 people were killed by lightning in America.
Terrorism isn’t a minor risk because the government is so good at policing it. It’s minor because not that many people have the motive, means and opportunity to do mass killings.
But although terrorism is not a risk that requires an undue amount of care to control and live with, the idea of terrorism has seriously infected political discourse and U.S. policies, domestic and foreign. Whenever warmongers want to incite sentiment for a new war in a new foreign land, they wave the red flag of terrorism. The words “terrorist” and “terrorism” have become instant propaganda tools for manipulating mass sentiment.
And to counteract this and adopt constructive anti-terror policies, it is necessary to place 9/11 in perspective and to say “Stop the war on terror!” Get off it. Move on. De-emotionalize the issue. Terrorism is nothing to worry deeply about. Terrorism is overblown. Terrorism is negligible. Terrorism doesn’t warrant aggressive wars. It does not warrant assassinations. It doesn’t warrant the use of drones or their proliferation in America. There are worse evils than terrorism. Control terrorist acts with good police work in which a mature public alertness (not mass suspicion) plays a role, but not with a domestic spy apparatus and not with policies that subject everyone to suspicion, frisking, warrantless searches, sexual assaults, radiation, and excessive police force.
If another catastrophic event like 9/11 occurs or if another large-scale mass murder occurs like the Oklahoma City bombing, will such an occurrence result in ramping up the police state techniques in the U.S.? Will it result in giving government further powers to spy, search, arrest without warrant, indefinitely detain, imprison in hidden prisons and assassinate Americans? Will it result in intensified intrusions overseas and even more widespread use of drones that kill? Will it result in a para-military force that operates outside of public control within America? Will it result in spying on every American? Will it result in drones that pepper American skies?
All of these activities are in place now. All are unnecessary. All are dangerous to liberty. All are wrong. By increasing injustice and repression, they stimulate resistance. A certain amount of that resistance takes the form of violent terrorist acts. The cures that are being employed make the patient more ill and more sick.
. . .
A particular worry at this time, far more than terrorism itself, is that politicians are now invoking terrorism at every turn as justification for their extreme warmongering policies . . . As a rule of thumb, do not believe any politician who proposes a war or urges Americans into war. Do not believe any politician who claims that a war is necessary, or points to an event like a ship sinking or a ship being blown up or an airplane being brought down or a terrorist act as a cause for war. Do not believe any politician who claims that Americans are threatened and must therefore attack the enemy before they attack us. Do not believe any politician who wants to make war when there has been no invasion of America itself by the armed force of another nation. Do not believe any politician who wants to make war because of some vague national security appeal, or because the U.S. must protect the shipment of oil or oil facilities located overseas. Don’t follow the government into war because it says it needs to protect American citizens overseas.
Don’t overreact to foiled terror plots that were extended and deepened by the FBI playing the role of a co-conspirator who promises to provide the bombs and devices that the unsuspecting would-be terrorist wants or has been talked into wanting.
Hidden in their hearts, some of America’s warmongers welcome terrorism overseas because this gives them an opportunity to justify expansion of the U.S. into new lands. The war on terror provides a cover for U.S. intervention in places that the U.S. deems to be of interest to the empire as it seeks to expand and counter the expansion of China. Hidden in their hearts, America’s control freaks welcome domestic terror events, real and concocted. This gives them the opportunity to expand and extend their control over Americans and build up a police state in the name of order and security. The warmongers are not about to admit this openly, even to themselves, but that is the thrust of their positions. Actions speak louder than words: 9/11 was met with war abroad and repression at home.
Even if I am completely wrong about the deepest motives of warmongers, the policies that have been enacted are still wrong. Every expansion of the U.S. empire into another Muslim land or a land that has a substantial Muslim population causes an increase in terrorism. When this shows up in America itself or overseas, the U.S. government people cry crocodile tears. But the government bears no cost for having generated increased terrorism or the fear thereof domestically. It gains. The government people are able to justify tightening the screws of domestic policing.
The war on terror has created a damaging spiral. Fighting terrorism overseas with occupations and war and drones produces more terrorism there and here at home. More terrorism at home then produces more justification for foreign intrusions and domestic control. These lead in turn to more terrorism here and further control over civilian life. From the government’s point of view, the war on terror is a never-ending banquet or orgy. War is indeed the health of the state . . . .