In the next paragraph, Walt essentially makes clear why this lesson will not be learned: namely, because there are too many American interests vested in the perpetuation of this irrational fear:
Mueller and Stewart estimate that expenditures on domestic homeland security (i.e., not counting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) have increased by more than $1 trillion since 9/11, even though the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Using conservative assumptions and conventional risk-assessment methodology, they estimate that for these expenditures to be cost-effective “they would have had to deter, prevent, foil or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year.” Finally, they worry that this exaggerated sense of danger has now been “internalized”: even when politicians and “terrorism experts” aren’t hyping the danger, the public still sees the threat as large and imminent. As they conclude:
… Americans seems to have internalized their anxiety about terrorism, and politicians and policymakers have come to believe that they can defy it only at their own peril. Concern about appearing to be soft on terrorism has replaced concern about seeming to be soft on communism, a phenomenon that lasted far longer than the dramatic that generated it … This extraordinarily exaggerated and essentially delusional response may prove to be perpetual.”
Which is another way of saying that you should be prepared to keep standing in those pleasant and efficient TSA lines for the rest of your life, and to keep paying for far-flung foreign interventions designed to “root out” those nasty jihadis.
Many of the benefits from keeping Terrorism fear levels high are obvious. Private corporations suck up massive amounts of Homeland Security cash as long as that fear persists, while government officials in the National Security and Surveillance State can claim unlimited powers, and operate with unlimited secrecy and no accountability. In sum, the private and public entities that shape government policy and drive political discourse profit far too much in numerous ways to allow rational considerations of the Terror threat.
* * * * *
But there’s a very similar and at least equally important (though far less discussed) constituency deeply vested in the perpetuation of this fear. It’s the sham industry Walt refers to, with appropriate scare quotes, as “terrorism experts,” who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does.
These “terrorism experts” form an incredibly incestuous, mutually admiring little clique in and around Washington. They’re employed at think tanks, academic institutions, and media outlets. They can and do have mildly different political ideologies — some are more Republican, some are more Democratic — but, as usual for D.C. cliques, ostensible differences in political views are totally inconsequential when placed next to their common group identity and career interest: namely, sustaining the myth of the Grave Threat of Islamic Terror in order to justify their fear-based careers, the relevance of their circle, and their alleged “expertise.” Like all adolescent, insular cliques, they defend one another reflexively whenever a fellow member is attacked, closing ranks with astonishing speed and loyalty; they take substantive criticisms very personally as attacks on their “friends,” because a criticism of the genre and any member in good standing of this fiefdom is a threat to their collective interests.
On a more substantive level, any argument (such as Walt’s) that puts the Menace of Islamic Terror into its proper rational perspective — namely, that it pales in comparison to countless other threats (including Terrorism from non-Muslim individuals and states); that it is wildly exaggerated considering what is done in its name; and that it is sustained by ugly sentiments of Islamophobic bigotry — is one that must be harshly denounced. Such an argument not only threatens their relevance but also their central ideology: that Terror is an objective term that just happens almost always to mean Islamic Terror, but never American Terror.
Thus, Walt’s seemingly uncontroversial article was published for not even 24 hours when it was bitterly attacked for hours on Twitter this morning by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and it’s not hard to see why. Looking at Gartenstein-Ross’s reaction and what drives it sheds considerable light onto this sham “terrorism expert” industry.
Gartenstein-Ross’ entire lucrative career as a “terrorism expert” desperately depends on the perpetuation of the Islamic Terror threat. He markets himself as an expert in Islamic Terror by highlighting that he was born Jewish, converted to Islam while in college, and then Saw the Light and converted to Christianity. During his short stint as a Muslim, he worked at the al-Haramain charity foundation in Oregon — the same one that was found to have been illegally spied upon by the Bush NSA — but became an FBI informant against the group because — as he claimed in a book,”My Year Inside Radical Islam”, which he subsequently wrote to profit off of his conduct — he was horrified by “the group hatreds and anti-intellectualism of radical Islam.”
He is now listed as an “expert” at the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (the group’s list of “experts” is basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country). Gartenstein-Ross is specifically employed by the Foundation as something called “Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization.” According to his own bio, he also “consults for clients who need to be at the forefront of understanding violent non-state actors and twenty-first century conflict” including for “major media companies, and strategic consultations for defense contractors” and “also regularly designs and leads training for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Leader Development and Education for Sustained Peace (LDESP) courses, the U.S. State Department’s Office of Anti-Terrorism Assistance, and domestic law enforcement.”
Unsurprisingly, Gartenstein-Ross — like so many “terrorism experts” in similar positions — is eager to depict Islamic Terror as a serious threat: he knows where his bread his buttered and does not want the personal cash train known as the War on Terror ever to arrive at a final destination. If you were him, would you?
In 2009, he wrote a study entitled “Homegrown Terrorists in the U.S. and U.K.” which, needless to say, was only about Muslims: an “examination of 117 ‘jihadist’ terrorists in the United States and the United Kingdom” which “concludes that religious beliefs” — namely, Islam –”play a role in radicalization.” In 2011, he wrote a book entitled Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror, which argues that “despite the death of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda remains a significant threat.” He has hyped the ludicrous alleged Iranian Quds Forces plot against the Saudi Ambassador (explaining that ”Holder weighing in on the plot’s connection to Iran means the administration is deadly serious about it”), and recently touted Nigeria as the “next front in the war on terror.”
To be sure, Gartenstein-Ross is more nuanced and sophisticated than the standard neocon “terror expert” cartoon — his 2011 bin Laden book argues against wasteful counter-terrorism programs that are out of proportion to the actual threat, and he has, to his credit, publicly opposed some of the more crass Islamophobic attacks — but if the War on Islamic Terror disappears, so, too, does his lucrative career as a “terrorism expert.” In that regard, he’s a highly representative figure for this industry.
Walt’s clearly expressed and uncontroversial argument about the exaggerated Terror threat prompted hours of angry derision and personal mockery today from Gartenstein-Ross (who ironically often holds himself out as the Beacon of Civil Discourse). It began this way:
Gartenstein-Ross then demanded that Muslim Terror be taken more seriously than Walt suggests: “terrorists actually put 3 bombs on passenger planes since 2009.” He was then joined by fellow “natsec” clique members for hours of swarming group mockery aimed at Walt (that’s how they typically behave). Gartenstein-Ross continued: Foreign Policy ”should rename Walt’s blog ‘An Ideologue in an Ideological Age.’ The idea he transcends ideological blinders is laughable.” Professor Walt, he then said, is “far less rigorous than his reputation suggests” and “the gap between perception & reality is rather astounding.” Then: “when an academic starts blogging it’s often easy to tell if that ‘authority’ is undeserved.”
All this public impugning of Walt’s reputation, scholarship and character over the crime of pointing out that the threat of Islamic Terror is wildly overstated by people who have an interest in perpetuating the threat. It’s as though Gartenstein-Ross and his friends were eager to jump up, wave their arms, and prove Walt’s argument by identifying themselves as precisely the fear-mongering culprits he was criticizing.
Exactly the same thing happened this week in response to Juan Cole’s superb post entitled “Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others,” pointing out all the revealing differences in how white perpetrators of violence are talked about versus non-white (especially Muslim) ones. Cole’s argument was every bit as threatening to the vested interests of the “terror expert” industry as Walt’s was, as it reveals the ugly truth that the hysteria over the Muslim Threat is motivated far more by Islamophobic bigotry and subservience to U.S. Government militarism than any rational policy assessments or high-minded scholarship.
This was too much to bear for J.M. Berger, a self-described “specialist on homegrown extremism” and author of “Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam,” which, in his words, “uncovers the secret history of American jihadists” — meaning Muslims, of course. “American Muslims have traveled abroad to fight in wars because of their religious beliefs,” says the book’s summary. (Symbolizing how relentlessly incestuous this clique is, Gartenstein-Ross randomly took a moment out of his attack on Walt today to pimp what he called Berger’s “valuable book”). Like Gartenstein-Ross, Berger avoids the more overt forms of anti-Muslim rhetoric, often stressing the need to distinguish between Good Muslims and the Terrorist kind, but he spends his time doing things like shrieking about the Towering Menace of Anwar al-Awlaki and generally hopping on whatever Muslim-Terrorism-is-a-Grave-Danger train that comes along.
Berger denounced Cole’s piece as “80 percent BS, 20 percent fair points” and said it was composed of “lazy generalizations.” Specifically, Berger complained that when a Muslim launches a violent attack, there are “whole stories dedicated to AQ being fringe and Islam being peaceful,” but when there’s a violent attack by a white shooter, “no one does stories about how white people are mostly peaceful and non-racist” (apparently, the true victims of unfair media coverage of Terror attacks are white people, not Muslims). He insisted, needless to say, that white perpetrators of violence are depicted as lone nuts while attacks by Muslims are depicted as part of a broader Terror threat only because it’s so true. It’s vital to Berger that Islamic Terror continue to be perceived as a vital, coordinated national security threat or else J.W. Berger and his “expertise” will cease to matter.
The key role played by this “terrorism expert” industry in sustaining highly damaging hysteria was highlighted in an excellent and still-relevant 2007 Washington Post Op-Ed by Zbigniew Brzezinski. In it, he described how the War on Terror has created an all-consuming Climate of Fear in the U.S. along with a systematic, multi-headed policy of discrimination against Muslim Americans based on these severely exaggerated threats, and described one of the key culprits this way:
Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry, generates its own momentum.The terror entrepreneurs, usually described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying acts of violence, sometimes even with blueprints for their implementation.
It’s very similar to what Les Gelb, in expressing his regret for supporting the attack on Iraq, described as “the disposition and incentives [in America's Foreign Policy Community] to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.” When I interviewed Gelb in 2010 regarding that quote, he told me that D.C. experts know that they can retain relevance in and access to key government circles only if they lend theoretical support to U.S. militarism rather than oppose it.
(Notably, people in these insular, government-subservient D.C. enclaves try to suppress and delegitimize any discussion of who funds them and what their careerist and cultural incentives are by denouncing any such discussion as illegitimate ad hominem; that’s all a way of demanding that they be accepted at face value as “experts” and that the financial and institutional pressures and groupthink precepts shaping their world and their views never be assessed).
Similarly to Brzezinski’s Op-Ed, Ken Silverstein recently wrote an excellent June, 2012 Harpers article examining the fraud known as Matthew Levitt, Ph.D., who heads the “Counterterrorism and Intelligence Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,” where he tracks “global jihadist movements” (as usual, “terrorism experts” fixate on Muslims). Levitt has been repeatedly used by the U.S. Government as a “terrorism expert” witness in the prosecution of dozens of Muslims accused of Terrorism despite a history of discredited claims and extremely dubious grounds for claiming “expertise”. Silverstein writes:
That is a description that applies generally to the sham “terrorism expert” industry.
* * * * *
Not all of these “terror experts” are driven primarily by careerist relevance. Some are actually vapid enough to be True Believers, addicted to the excitement and sense of purpose that Terrorism provides. Fran Townsend — Bush’s former Homeland Security adviser, CNN’s “national security expert,” and a paid supporter of the Iranian Terror group MEK — provided a small but telling example this morning. She was apparently at New York’s LaGuardia Airport when a very exciting episode happened which she “reported” on Twitter as it unfolded. First was this:
Code words! Security breaches! How scary! And exciting! Moments later:
The mystery builds! Then:
Here, things start to palpably deflate. The depressing realization starts to set in that nothing of any significance has happened, that it’s all just some routine, banal event of no consequence. Then: the inevitable, deeply disappointing denouement:
In other words, nothing — all that breathless excitement over absolutely nothing: a perfect little microcosm of America’s Terrorism policies and its “terror expert” industry over the last decade.
* * * * *
But the most pernicious attribute of this “terror expert” industry, the aspect that requires much more attention, is its pretense to non-ideological, academic objectivity. In reality, these “terror experts”, almost uniformly, have a deeply ideological view — a jingoistic, highly provincial understanding — of what Terrorism is and is not. They generally fixate on Muslims to the exclusion of all other forms of Terror. In particular, the idea that the U.S. or its allies now commit Terrorism is taboo, unthinkable. Their views on what Terrorism is track the U.S. Government’s and, by design, justify U.S. government actions. They are not “experts” as much as they are ideologues, rank propagandists, and servants of America’s establishment power centers.
The reason the term “terrorism experts” deserves to be put in quotation marks is not as some ad hominem insult (something the mavens of the “terror expert” clique are incapable of understanding, as they demonstrated with their ludicrously personalized outrage when I applied this critique to one of their industry’s most cherished Patron Saints, Will McCants). Rather, it’s because — as I’ve written about many times before — the very concept of Terrorism is inherently empty, illegitimate, meaningless. “Terrorism” itself is not an objective term or legitimate object of study, but was conceived of as a highly politicized instrument and has been used that way ever since.
The best scholarship on this issue, in my view, comes from Remi Brulin, who teaches at NYU and wrote his PhD dissertation at the Sorbonne in Paris on the discourse of Terrorism. When I interviewed him in 2010, he described the history of the term — it was pushed by Israel in the 1960s and early 1970s as a means of universalizing its conflicts (this isn’t our fight against our enemies over land; it’s the Entire World’s Fight against The Terrorists!). The term was then picked up by the neocons in the Reagan administration to justify their covert wars in Central America (in a test run for what they did after 9/11, they continuously exclaimed: we’re fighting against The Terrorists in Central America, even as they themselves armed and funded classic Terror groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua). From the start, the central challenge was how to define the term so as to include the violence used by the enemies of the U.S. and Israel, while excluding the violence the U.S., Israel and their allies used, both historically and presently. That still has not been figured out, which is why there is no fixed, accepted definition of the term, and certainly no consistent application.
Brulin details the well-known game-playing with the term: in the 1980s, Iraq was put on the U.S. list of Terror states when the U.S. disliked Saddam for being aligned with the Soviets; then Iraq was taken off when the U.S. wanted to arm Saddam to fight Iran; then they were put back on again when the U.S. wanted to attack Iraq. The same thing is happening now with the MEK: now that they’re a pro-U.S. and pro-Israel Terror group rather than a Saddam-allied one, they are magically no longer going to be deemed Terrorists. That is what Terrorism is: a term of propaganda, a means of justifying one’s own state violence — not some objective field of discipline in which one develops “expertise.”
This flaw in the concept of “terrorism expertise” is not a discrete indictment of specific “scholars,” but is a fundamental flaw plaguing the entire field. Even the most decorated and honored “terrorism experts” are little more than ideological propagandists, because that’s what the term necessarily entails. Today, Brulin wrote the following to me regarding U.S. Reagan-era policy in Central America — namely, supporting Terror groups (death squads) while denouncing Terrorism — and the specific “terrorism expert” often held up as the field’s most prestigious, Bruce Hoffman:
One obvious question comes to mind: how do “terrorism experts” deal with US policies in Salvador during the 1980s?
A comprehensive analysis of the two major “terrorism studies” journals, “Studies on Conflict and Terrorism” (simply titled “Terrorism” until 1992) and “Terrorism and Political Violence” shows that overall these journals have dealt with this issue by … being silent about it. More precisely, several authors in fact absolutely accept that the concept of “state terrorism” is a valid one, and that acts by “death squads” clearly fall under that definition also. They simply never deal with this issue in the context of the real world policies of the United States and of the Reagan years in particular, a silence all the more surprising than Reagan was the first American President to develop a “discourse on terrorism”.
Reacting to Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Exum wrote: “Greenwald makes it seem as if states are never mentioned as terrorist actors, but there is a lot of literature on the use of coercive violence by states and state terrorism”. This is true of course, but at least when it comes to the conflict of El Salvador studied here, and to US policies in that country, those who did write about this issue have never been published in the major “terrorism studies journals.”
Exum then adds: “Bruce Hoffman published this book in 1999. I’m pretty sure those two guys are terrorism experts without the scare quotes.”
In “Inside Terrorism”, to his merit, Hoffman devotes a full chapter to the question of the “definition of terrorism.” What follows in the rest of his book is naturally dependent on what he decides to include and not include in his definition of “terrorism”. Here is, in full, how Hoffman deals with the issue of “death squads” (emphasis added):
“The use of so-called ‘death squads’ (often off-duty or plain-clothes security or police officers) in conjunction with blatant intimidation of political opponents, human rights and aid workers, student groups, labor organizers, journalists and others has been a prominent feature of the right-wing military dictatorships that took power in Argentina, Chile and Greece during the 1970s and even of elected governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and Peru since the mid-1980s. But these state-sanctioned or explicitly ordered acts of internal political violence directed mostly against domestic populations — that is, rule by violence and intimidation by those already in power against their own citizenry — are generally termed ‘terror’ in order to distinguish that phenomenon from ‘terrorism’, which is understood to be violence committed by non-state entities. (Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 27).
Sadly, Hoffman does not tell his readers who at the time “termed acts by death squads ‘terror’”, or who wishes to do so “in order to distinguish this phenomenon from ‘terrorism.’”
Not only is this argument rather less than convincing, but most crucially no one in Washington, at the time, ever used this argument, and this for obvious reasons. Indeed, as Hoffman himself notes, the “death squads”, “even in elected governments like El Salvador”, were “state-sanctioned”, precisely what the Reagan administration kept denying at the time. Furthermore, Hoffman’s argument makes no sense in the historical context: can one imagine the Reagan administration defending US aid to El Salvador as part of the “fight against terrorism” while stating that the ties between that State and the “death squad” posed no problem because they merely fell under the concept of “terror”?
Thus, the role of “terrorism experts” cannot simply be described as blindly accepting of the official “discourse on terrorism”, although this is already a strong critique. As the case of El Salvador demonstrates, what they have done is to invent arguments aimed at excluding from discussion specific issues, while hiding or being completely silent about the actual debates that took place on this topic at the very heart of Washington. In so doing, they have allowed a “terrorism discourse” to developed and become hegemonic despite the many internal inconsistencies that have been at its heart from the very beginning.
Finally, one will note that Hoffman, in Inside Terrorism, makes no mention of the Contras and their support by the Reagan administration. This is a difficult decision to explain, since aid to the Contras falls under the concept of “state sponsored terrorism”, the validity of which is accepted by all experts. Here, Hoffman uses the technique used by so many other “terrorism experts” in this case: he simply decides to not write about it, with no explanation given.
The entire field is one huge effort to legitimize U.S. state violence and delegitimize the violence by its enemies (along those lines: the court-martial of accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan began today, and I asked earlier today on Twitter whether this attack constituted Terrorism given that it targeted a military base and soldiers of a nation at war. My mere asking of this question sparked all sorts of intense outrage from the predictable “natsec” D.C. mavens: Of course it’s Terrorism, as Hasan killed unarmed people including one civilian, exclaimed people who would never, ever dare apply the Terrorism label to the civilian-devastating U.S. attack on Iraq or the use of American drones and cluster bombs to kill innocent civilians by the dozens; that is the discourse of Terrorism: violence by Muslims against a U.S. military base during a time of war qualifies, but violence by the U.S. Government against thousands of innocent Muslim civilians never could).
Brulin is far from alone among scholars in recognizing the true purpose of this sham discipline. Harvard’s Lisa Stampnitzky, whom I interviewed several months ago, is also a leading scholar on the exploitation of Terrorism and the field that calls itself “terrorism experts.” In a superb journal article in Qualitative Sociology, she documents that “‘Terrorism’ has proved to be a highly problematic object of expertise”; in particular, “Terrorism studies fails to conform to the most common sociological notions of what a field of intellectual production ought to look like, and has been described by participants and observers alike as a failure.” She notes that the harshest condemnations have come from those who work in this academic discipline: “Terrorism researchers have characterized their field as stagnant, poorly conceptualized, lacking in rigor, and devoid of adequate theory, data, and methods.” That includes Bruce Hoffman himself, who, she notes, wrote:
Fifteen years ago, the study of terrorism was described by perhaps the world’s preeminent authority on modern warfare as a ’huge and ill-defined subject [that] has probably been responsible for more incompetent and unnecessary books than any other outside the field of sociology. It attracts phonies and amateurs…as a candle attracts moths’… [T]errorism research arguably has failed miserably.
Stampnitzky adds: “More than 15 years after this assessment, descriptions of the field are rife with similar claims.” Indeed, her forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press is entitled “Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented Terrorism” and, in her words, it “explains how political violence became ‘terrorism,’ and how this transformation led to the current ‘war on terror’.” For that reason, she argues in her dissertation, “those who would address terrorism as a rational object, subject to scientific analysis and manipulation, produce a discourse which they are unable to control, as attempts at scientific discourse are continually hybridized by the moral discourse of the public sphere, in which terrorism is conceived as a problem of evil and pathology.” Indeed, she explains in her journal article, “One of the most oft-noted difficulties has been the inability of researchers to establish a suitable definition of the concept of ‘terrorism’ itself.”
In a recently published journal article in International Security, entitled “The Terrorism Delusion,” Professors John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart (cited by Walt) extensively document what a fraud the concept of “Terrorism” has become over the last decade. Specifically, ”the exaggerations of the threat presented by terrorism and then on 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.”
Richard Jackson is a Professor at the The National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Zealand. He has written volumes on the fraud of “terrorism expertise” and the propagandistic purpose of this field of discipline. He has documented that most self-proclaimed “terrorism experts” simply ignore the primary cause of the violence they claim to study: “most terrorism scholars, politicians and the media don’t seem to ‘know’ that terrorism is most often caused by military intervention overseas, and not religion, radicalization, insanity, ideology, poverty or such like” — even though “the Pentagon has known it for years.” In one article entitled “10 Things More Likely to Kill You Than Terrorism,” he notes that “The chances of you dying in a terrorist attack are in the range of 1 in 80,000, or about the same chance of being killed by a meteor,” and that bathtubs, vending machines, and lightning all pose a greater risk of death.
In a book critiquing the “terrorism expert” field, Jackson argued that “most of what is accepted as well-founded ’knowledge’ in terrorism studies is, in fact, highly debatable and unstable.“ He therefore scorns almost four decades of so-called Terrorism scholarship as ”based on a series of ‘virulent myths’, ’half-truths’ and contested claims” that are plainly “biased towards Western state priorities.” To Jackson, terrorism is “a social fact rather than a brute fact” and “does not exist outside of the definitions and practices which seek to enclose it, including those of the terrorism studies field.” In sum, it means whatever the wielder of the term wants it to mean: something that cannot be the subject of legitimate “expertise.”
* * * * *
There is no term more potent in our political discourse and legal landscape than “Terrorism.” It shuts down every rational thought process and political debate the minute it is uttered. It justifies torture (we have to get information from the Terrorists); due-process-free-assassinations even of our own citizens (Obama has to kill the Terrorists); and rampant secrecy (the Government can’t disclose what it’s doing or have courts rule on its legality because the Terrorists will learn of it), and it sends people to prison for decades (material supporters of Terrorism).
It is a telling paradox indeed that this central, all-justifying word is simultaneously the most meaningless and therefore the most manipulated. It is, as I have noted before, a word that simultaneously means nothing yet justifies everything. Indeed, that’s the point: it is such a useful concept precisely because it’s so malleable, because it means whatever those with power to shape discourse want it to mean. And no faction has helped this process along as much as the group of self-proclaimed “terrorism experts” that has attached itself to think tanks, academia, and media outlets. They enable pure political propaganda to masquerade as objective fact, shining brightly with the veneer of scholarly rigor. The industry itself is a fraud, as are those who profit from and within it.