Tierney on Mueller and Terrorism

by Don Boudreaux on September 9, 2006

in Current Affairs, Politics, Risk and Safety, Terrorism

John Mueller is one of my favorite political scientists and John Tierney is one of my favorite columnists.  Today, you can get two for the price of one by reading Tierney’s column in the New York Times.

Here are some key paragraphs from that column:

So what’s keeping [terrorists from striking Americans more frequently]? That’s the question raised by Mueller, a
political scientist at Ohio State University, in the current issue of
Foreign Affairs.

“Why,” he asks, “have they not been sniping at
people in shopping centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food
supply, cutting electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil
pipelines, causing massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless
other vulnerabilities that, according to security experts, could so
easily be exploited?”

The Bush administration likes to take
credit for stopping domestic plots, but it’s hard to gauge whether
these are much more than the fantasies of a few klutzes. Bush also
claims that the war in Iraq has diverted terrorists’ attention there,
but why wouldn’t global jihadists want the added publicity from
attacking America at home, too? Al Qaeda’s leaders threatened in 2003
to attack America — along with a half dozen other countries that
haven’t been attacked either.

Mueller’s conclusion is that
there just aren’t that many terrorists out there with the zeal and the
competence to attack the United States. In his forthcoming book,
Overblown,” he argues that the risk of terrorism didn’t increase after
Sept. 11 — if anything, it declined because of a backlash against Al
Qaeda, making it a smaller and less capable threat than before. But the
terrorism industry has been too busy hyping Sept. 11 and several other
attacks to notice.

And Tierney’s conclusion:

As it is, [Mueller] figures, the odds of an American being killed by
international terrorism are about one in 80,000. And even if there were
attacks on the scale of Sept. 11 every three months for the next five
years, the odds for any individual dying would be one in 5,000.

with past threats — like Communist sociopaths with nuclear arsenals —
Al Qaeda’s terrorists are a minor problem. They certainly don’t justify
the hyperbolic warnings that America’s “existence” or “way of life” is
in jeopardy, or that America must transform the Middle East in order to

There undoubtedly will be more terrorist attacks,
either from Al Qaeda or others, just as there were before 2001.
Terrorists might strike Monday. There will always be homicidal zealots
like Mohamed Atta or Timothy McVeigh, and some of them will succeed,
terribly. But this is not a new era. The terrorist threat is still
small. It’s the terrorism industry that got big.

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Aaron Krowne September 9, 2006 at 11:24 pm

hear, hear!

Malcolm Kirkpatrick September 10, 2006 at 12:58 am

Technology empowers everyone, including embittered losers. As technology advances, losers will require fewer resources and fewer organizational skills to make a big mess. Further, value is determined by supply and demand. As the world's population increases the value of an individual human life must decline. I suspect your expert is mistaken.

John Reed September 10, 2006 at 10:47 am

I take issue with the second part of Malcolm Kirkpatrick's contention.

The value I place on my loved ones is not at all affected by the total population of the world.

Only to the extent that we view humans as an undifferentiated commodity is Mr. Kirkpatrick's claim plausible. But human beings need not be so treated, regardless how many there are. Someone about whom I know absolutely nothing may have a very low value me, but I value him or her to the extent that I would not trespass his or her person or property. That value is not affected by the total number of individuals, even if I knew the number.

Degrees of valuation probably cannot be recognized beyond a few dozen "units," whether those units are individual humans or groupings such as nationalities. I cannot detect degrees of my personal valuations beyond an even smaller number of units.

Unfortunately, people are sometimes treated as an undifferentiated commodity by persons in positions of power. The more of a human commodity a politician views as available, the more expendable each undifferentiated unit will seem.

Steven M. Warshawsky September 10, 2006 at 3:36 pm

The reasoning in this article is so deeply flawed, it's surprising that the smart folks on this website would buy into it.

Let's look at the big statement in the article, to wit, that "even if there were attacks on the scale of Sept. 11 every three months for the next five years, the odds for any individual dying would be one in 5,000." Thus, the author concludes (in a complete non sequitur), the threat of terrorism is a "minor problem" and doesn't "justify the hyperbolic warnings that America’s “existence” or “way of life” is in jeopardy."

Let's see, 20 attacks on the scale of 9/11 over a five year period? Well, the domestic airline industry would grind to a complete halt. Obviously these attacks would not be "spread evenly" across the country, but would be concentrated in high-profile, high-density areas like NYC, DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. As a result, much of life in those cities, which form the vital financial and technological links for our economy (not to mention the source of most news, entertainment, and culture), would be destroyed. There would probably be a violent backlash against Muslims and all perceived supporters of terrorism, which the government would try to stamp out, leading to a low-level state of civil unrest in many parts of the country. Oh, and if any of these attacks were aimed at the power grid or water supply, that would have wide-ranging effects. And of course, the nation's energies would be focused even more than they are now on the terror problem, instead of on the ordinary, enjoyable activities that make our life what it is.

Yeah, right, like this would not significantly affect our "way of life."

And just wait until the terrorists get their hands on nukes.

One can rightly debate how to address the terror problem, but statements like Mueller's are stupid beyond belief.

Ben Litchman September 11, 2006 at 8:20 am

Great response, Steven. This is flatly not an issue for statistical curiosities like "if there were attacks on the scale of Sept. 11 every three months for the next five years, the odds for any individual dying would be one in 5,000"! Only an intellectual could be so myopic.

Augustus Nalley September 11, 2006 at 9:00 am

Mr. Tierney's article refelects a collectivist's paradigm of the effects of terrorism, and discounts it's effect on individuals. The notion that tragedy for a minority is no tradgedy at all belies the same lack of concern for fellow human beings that is the seminal point for the terrorist mentality ("greater good"). The irony is that our collective world is lost when we fail to put the rights of the individual first.

That is a lesson some people seem to refuse to learn.

Whit Stevens September 11, 2006 at 3:04 pm

Love the Sunset Blvd reference at the bottom of the article!


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