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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