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Tierney on Mueller and 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.

Compared 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 survive.

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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