"More than a trillion dollars has been misspent": Politicians and the media have botched the war on terror, but are great at terrifying us

Odds of dying in terror attack since 9/11: 1 in 90 million. Still, politicians want us scared. An expert explains

By David Masciotra

Contributing Writer

Published January 17, 2016 7:00PM (EST)

A major part of the American condition is fear. Paranoia in America stretches from fright of drugs to panic over Islamic invaders seeking to transform Las Vegas into Kabul. It seems that America cannot psychologically function without believing that it is under constant threat; teetering on the edge of destruction from the comic book menace of apocalyptic villains. The escapist plots of "Mission Impossible" movies are now equal to mainstream American political discourse in their unrealistic depiction of geopolitics and international affairs.

For several decades, America was able to fulfill its psychic need for a gigantic evil with the Cold War. The Pentagon, along with successive presidents, was able to take advantage of the everlasting red scare by continually transferring wealth from the taxpayer to the defense contractor and military; increasing “defense” budgets, and building the national security state.

The fall of the Berlin Wall made the 1990s something of a lost decade, but the horror of 9/11 changed all of that by giving Americans a new enemy – an enemy that is seemingly everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Islamic terrorists now pose the existential threat to America that can justify perpetual war, bloated military budgets, and violation of constitutional liberties.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was impossible to find a politician or pundit not repeating the mindless cliché, “It is not a matter of if, but when they will attack again.” Years later, and the follow-up attack has still not happened. Yet, the rhetoric remains the same, as do the policies and budgets it reflects. Al-Qaida is yesterday’s news. Now, Americans are told they have ISIS to fear – an even worse mutation of the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Few voices of reason are audible over the cacophony of madness. John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, is one of them. In his 2006 book, "Overblown," he convincingly argued that the terrorist threat is exactly that, and now he and Mark Stewart indict the irresponsibility of public officials who play on popular fears to misspend money and misdirect resources in "Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism."

Using evidence, reason and logic – strange concepts in American culture, but perhaps, still marginally useful – Mueller demonstrates that the terrorist threat is wildly exaggerated, and that public policy should reflect that reality, rather than chase the ghosts of American fantasy.

I recently spoke to Mueller over the phone.

Since it seems that the average American is pretty frightened of a terrorist attack within our own borders, what should the average American know about terrorism?

Well, the primary fact is that their chance of being killed in a terrorist attack on any given year is about 1 in 4 million. Their chance of being killed in an automobile accident, for example, is about 1 in 6- or 7,000. If we talk about the period since 9/11, your chance of being killed is 1 in 90 million per year. So, that is where the discussion should start. It isn’t where it should end, but certainly the basis should be there. Instead of constantly talking about, “Are we safer?” The beginning question should be, “How safe are we?” And these statistics and odds are an indication of how safe we are.

The United States government and the media do not begin with that question, and never, according to my assessment, acknowledge those statistics. So, this not only leads to fear and hysteria among the public, but also bad policy. What are some of the bad policies that are cost-ineffective, and how much money has America misspent on this phantom threat?

You could make a good case for more than a trillion dollars has been misspent. You’d have to look at every aspect of it, obviously, and some of the money might have been spent well, even if only by sheer luck. The more we look at it, however, the more we question whether the enhanced security measures since 9/11 have been cost-effective, meaning that they reduce the threat sufficiently to justify their costs.

To go back to your starting premise, I think it is not so much that people are being scared by the media or politicians, but rather that people are scared period, and because they are scared, public officials and the media are playing to those fears, and exacerbating them. I consider that politically understandable, but also terribly irresponsible. We are talking about public safety, not the bridge to nowhere, or some other budgetary screw-up. It is important that tax money be spent in a way that maximizes the safety of the public. With counterterrorism spending, that is clearly not the case.

9/11 was such a traumatic and impactful atrocity. The images were so horrific that they are forever tattooed in the memory of most Americans. Do you believe that is why the public is so afraid, and that politicians can so easily take advantage of those fears?

Yes, the shock of 9/11 was obviously strong. But the main reason people are afraid is that the terrorism is connected to this spooky international conspiracy. There was a terrorist attack in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City. It was dramatic and horrible. It was the worst terrorist attack on American soil before 9/11. People were very concerned that it could happen anywhere, but fears dissipated once it became clear that it was a one-off attack. That hasn’t happened after 9/11. Even before the rise of ISIS, polls indicated that people were as afraid of terrorism as they were at then end of 2001.

The two comparisons we use in "Chasing Ghosts" are communists during the Cold War when there were supposedly mysterious people around planning bad things, and I quote J. Edgar Hoover as talking about communists trying to take over the government who are “invisible to the non-communist eye.” Even though domestic communists were doing hardly anything in terms of subversion or espionage, fears continued perpetually. That’s the fear of people you can’t see who are moving around the country, planning evil things, and connected to a foreign source.

The other one is fear of witches, and that has a lot of parallels, because it is people who think people are working with the most massive foreign conspiracy – that is the devil. If you believe that, you think they are everywhere, that they are copulating with the devil, and riding broomsticks. The fear of witches was big-time in Europe. It lasted about 200 years. The parallel is there: Internal people that you can’t set apart from other people who are linked to an outside, spooky force – communism, terrorism, the devil.

Right now that international force is ISIS. According to your research and analysis, is ISIS a significant threat to American life?

Tragedies can happen like in Paris or San Bernadino. So, there is a threat. There is a problem. But the likelihood that they could do major damage is extremely low. My book is called "Overblown." It isn’t called "Non-Existent." It isn’t that there is nothing there, but it is that the threat level is low.

How would you counter the argument that the major government expenditures on preventing terrorism are precisely the reason why we haven’t suffered more attacks on the scale of 9/11? It is impossible to prove that counterfactual proposition, but I’m sure you face that question pretty consistently.

Terrorism outside of war zones, especially in the United States, is historically pretty limited. Secondly, when I give you the numbers – 1 in 4 million and 1 in 90 million – the logic is that we are remarkably safe. So, maybe some of the expenditures help keep those numbers low, but shouldn’t we investigate which expenditures we could cut profitably?

What Mark Stewart and I have been doing is assessing, using standard cost benefit analysis techniques, homeland security expenditures. We find that they would increase public safety on an extreme level to justify their expenditures. We’ve looked very hard, for example, at federal marshals on airplanes. It is an expensive program – a billion dollars a year – and given all the other airline security measures, they don’t provide any additional safety. So, it is one of the most prime candidates for elimination or reduction, and it would be easy to reduce, because all you would have to do is have a hiring freeze. No one wants to even do this, though. This is an extreme case of a security measure that is foolish by any standard, but you can’t even get people to think about it. Mark and I, a few months ago, talked to the staff people of congressman John Duncan in Tennessee, who is unique, because he said that the air marshal program is stupid and wasteful, and we should get rid of it. We were shocked that someone actually said it. He wants to write a bill to get rid of it, but he can’t find any co-sponsors. All of his colleagues are afraid that something bad will happen, and then they’ll be up the creek. So, the program keeps going and going, even though it is very foolish.

Do you think that’s the main reason why these policies don’t change? The president or a congressman lives in terror of an attack happening, and then the inevitable attack ads that will ensue – “He cut this program” or “She defunded that program.”

Yes, I think that is a major part of it. My argument on that is if you take a job for public safety, and for public safety, you have to make potentially career ending decisions, you should resign if you are not willing to make those decisions. It is like a firefighter who refuses to put out fires because he is afraid of the flames, or doesn’t like smoke, and then he complains. Don’t take the job in the first place. It is incredibly irresponsible. Public safety is the main reason government exists. To spend the finite amount of funds available for public safety unwisely is reprehensible. What they are saying is, “I care much more about my job security than I do public safety. I’ll spend money to maximize my job security, but not to maximize public safety.”

If they cared more about public safety than job security, what kind of expenditures would we see more out of D.C.?

Counterterrorism would be substantially reduced. We have to look at it in a reverse way. Given the increased expenditures since 9/11, how many attacks would those measures have to deter or disrupt to justify their existence? Using standard cost-benefit analysis, it comes out to three Times Square attacks every week. If you really think they are preventing someone from planting a car bomb in Times Square three times a week, then they are justified.

The central concept is acceptable risk. There’s always risk, and you don’t have an infinite amount of money, and you can’t eliminate all the risks. Walking across the street is a risk. Driving a car is definitely a risk. Eating too much food is a risk. Given that there are many risks, when does a risk become acceptable?

If the chance of being killed is 1 in 4 million, it becomes a case that spending more money to make that even lower is not justified, because you could spend that same money to reduce risks that are 1 in 8,000. You want to spend money on the things that kill the most people – saving the most lives at the lowest costs.

Here’s one example to make it clear: A number of years ago the federal safety people looked at measures to require that there be seatbelts in the backseats of cars. They were already required in the front seats. What they came up with is that we should require them in new cars, but not old cars. The reason for that is the cost. It is inexpensive to install seatbelts in new cars, because it is a relatively simple procedure at the construction plant, but retrofitting old cars is rather expensive. Another way of looking at that is they essentially said, “If you are in the backseat of an old car, you’ll just have to die.”

There’s an example of the types of policies the federal government could pursue to increase public safety. However, even if the terrorism threat is very low, what would you do to safeguard the public against it? Clearly, the answer isn’t to maintain current expenditures and policies, but I would assume the answer isn’t nothing.

The expenditures in 2001 were adequate. Beyond the cost-benefit analysis I’ve already provided, you could look at more specific cases. So, with airline safety the most cost-effective measure is crew and passenger resistance to a hijacking. It is effective, and extremely cheap. So, do you really want to add something that costs a billion dollars a year, like the air marshal program?

The same is probably the case with the expensive body scanners. The analysis that’s been done of those shows that they don’t do much good, and they are very costly. Little of this analysis exists, but even when it does happen, it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact. The policies just continue.

What do you think of the portrayal of the terrorists? You address this in "Chasing Ghosts," calling it the “myth of the mastermind.”

The terrorists are not an impressive group of people. Most of the attacks that the government has prevented have been pretty pathetic. For example, at the end of 2015, there was a guy in Rochester they picked up who planned to take a machete and kill several people in a restaurant to declare his allegiance to ISIS. But, now we know that he was a panhandler. He had no money. He couldn’t even afford the $40 knife, but the FBI, as part of their sting operation, helped him pay for it. He formed a cell with four people, but the three other people were all FBI agents. In many of these cases, these guys left on their own couldn’t do much of anything. They are spouting the jihadist line, which is very unpleasant, but the actual threat level is extremely limited.

I know it is a little outside the purview of your research, but what do you believe is the motive of public officials who continually inculcate fear in the general public, and enhance the fears that already exist to enforce ineffective and irresponsible public policy?

Well, there’s the bureaucratic one. They want to get reelected, and are afraid that they won’t if something bad happens. By the way, though, on that argument there was an attack on Fort Hood that killed 13 people. No one got kicked out of office because of it. Who got fired after 9/11? It seems like zero to me.

Many of them, in my experience talking to them, seem like sincere public servants. It isn’t that they are monsters, but they believe all of this stuff, and they seem unwilling to reevaluate it seriously. And with the media, any time you can work a reference to ISIS into a story, it is likely to become clickbait.

I once suggested to a producer at CNN that they insert on that crawl at the bottom of the screen, “Your chance of being killed by a terrorist is 1 in 4 million per year.” He didn’t take seriously my suggestion. That should be there consistently in our conversation, but I doubt anything is likely to change.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of six books, including "Exurbia Now: The Battleground of American Democracy" and "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters." He has written for the New Republic, Washington Monthly, CrimeReads, No Depression and many other publications about politics, music and literature.

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