Why are so many people so terrified of terrorists?
"Terrorists" (or more frequently in the current obscurant political language: "terrorism") have become the boogeymen of the modern age. Whenever the president seeks to push his illicit and counterproductive foreign and domestic "security" proposals, he trots out this reliable nag for yet another jaunt around the track. The rut the prez has created with this ploy is so deeply ground into the dirt that he cannot envision the possibility of any other course.
The propaganda never ends.
The threat of "terrorists" demands that the United States keep a hundred-thousand of its troops in Iraq at the cost of tens-of-billions of dollars per year (and counting...).
The threat of "terrorists" demands that the public accept the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers since the end of "active combat" -- with more to come -- as "necessary" and a result to be honored.
The threat of "terrorists" demands that we celebrate a department whose name evokes eerie images of Stalin and Hitler -- the Department of Homeland Security -- a bureaucracy that excels at issuing vague (and expensive) color-coded warnings based on "intelligence" that is anything but.
The threat of "terrorists" demands that the citizens of America welcome intrusive, disruptive, and often intensely personal and upsetting searches at airports, museums, national monuments, sporting events, concerts, and any place else the flunkies and emulators of the Attorney-General can suggest.
The threat of "terrorists" demands that libraries and Internet service providers and hotels and credit card companies and banks and any other businesses we might innocently frequent be ready to hand over to the State confidential customer information upon demand, probable cause or no.
The threat of "terrorists" demands that we accede to the State the "right" to hold indefinitely and without legal representation or formal charges or trial anyone it designates for "secret" reasons to be a "terrorist threat."
The threat of "terrorists" demands that we see nothing untoward in fingerprinting any visitor -- tourist or entrepreneur -- from a host of other countries, including such hotbeds of "terrorist threats" as Brazil.
The threat of "terrorists" demands that no one complain as the State sets up a national database to determine whether we are to be trusted to board a commercial airplane or whether we will be taken aside for further "scrutiny" or banned from any flight anywhere, any time...regardless of the tickets we hold in our hands.
The threat of "terrorists" demands that children mature in a world in which blind and immediate submission to State authority is viewed as the norm, the ordinary, the expected; a world in which mandated identification cards, involuntarily gathered biometric information, and nationally linked databases make the universe of Orwell seem almost benign.
The threat of "terrorists" demands that we "surrender" (or more accurately "have forcibly seized from us") even more of what little freedom remains to us regardless of the lack of Constitutional authority for the spying and the seizures and the prohibitions and the takeovers the State is intent on inflicting upon an innocent populace.
I know many people out there are no doubt blustering incoherently at the very suggestion that terrorists are not to be taken seriously, that these sneaking bastards are not dangerous creatures of evil deserving of utter destruction.
But, of course, I offered no such fantasmal suggestion.
The difficulty arises from the fact that modern Americans seem dispositionally incapable of accurately assessing risks. Too many of those in this country -- and virtually all of its political leaders -- obsess on minor dangers and magnify these secondary threats into world-class monsters. This self-induced confusion then creates its own problems. First, these fear-mongers waste limited resources -- of time and money and emotion -- that could be used more productively elsewhere. Secondly, by diverting attention from greater perils, these Chicken-Littles increase the likelihood that those darker hazards will not be recognized or acted upon until it is too late.
Our political culture has expended (and still expends) enormous energy and dollars against a number of relatively minor or ephemeral risks. Secondhand smoke, dioxin, radiation, asbestos, DDT, guns, population growth, lack of health insurance, ensuring retirement income, recreational drugs, global warming, ozone holes, acid rain, chemicals in our food, water shortages, educational problems, poverty, hunger, housing shortages, fictional violence, musical lyrics, the Internet, videogames, child abductions, school shootings, burning churches, energy supplies, sex, SUV's...the litany of "deadly dangers" and "threats" to Americans is never-ending.
Yes, these issues must be addressed when necessary. But left to free people to solve, such concerns would be easily manageable. Once the State initiates Panic-Mode, however, and seizes our money and passes laws and issues regulations willy-nilly that abscond with our liberty, problems that once were no big deal in a wider social sense (though often horrendously miserable for those directly affected) such concerns mushroom into Crises-Of-The-Moment-That-Threaten-Our-Very-Existence. (Or even worse, the problems further exacerbated by the State did not become problems until the State intervened with its thick-fingered eagerness.)
Terrorists are not a new invention. For as long as there have been human conflicts on this planet, one group of antagonists has utilized terror as a tool to weaken its opponents and gain the upper-hand. Often terrorism was wielded by the State itself against its own citizens (with magnitudes-larger resultant destruction than ever committed by a non-governmental organization). Other times, small numbers of dissatisfied people have struck at stronger adversaries via terrorist activities. In either scenario, inducing fear is seen as a prime weapon in achieving the criminals' goals.
"But times are different today!" we are told. "Now the terrorists have access to weapons of mass destruction!"
Or at least some of them would like to unleash chemical, biological, or nuclear nightmares upon the unsuspecting populace of their enemy.
Is it possible that terrorists could smuggle a WMD into the United States and use it against us?
Then shouldn't we acknowledge the value and necessity of the new powers granted our government in order to protect us from such an unthinkable consequence?
At the very least, we were justified in invading Iraq because of the threat of terrorists.
No, we were not.
You are nothing more than an impractical idealist! Your do-nothing policy would doom us to destruction.
Though the president should have followed the Constitution and asked Congress formally to declare war against Afghanistan, at least the Taliban's sheltering of al-Qaeda deserved to be ended. But rather than concentrate on the supposed reason for the invasion of Afghanistan -- the offically-sanctioned presence there of a specific terrorist group that had directly attacked our country and killed our citizens -- our Fearless Leader diverted 100,000 of our troops to oust Saddam Hussein on the erroneous pretext that this third-rate dictator was a dire threat to America.
The result? A resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and a massive influx of recruits for al-Qaeda.
(We will leave aside for now the fact that the interventionist policies of past U.S. presidents helped create the initial dissatisfaction that culminated in the attack on the World Trade Center.)
The self-indulgent policies of this president and the reprehensible violation of his oath to protect and defend the Constitution (with the same charge laid at the feet of a Congress that supported this preemptive war) will likely make us less safe in the long-run.
Rather than thinking we can bring "democracy" to a cobbled-together nation of fanatically opposed religious groups, the U.S. should concentrate its efforts on eliminating al-Qaeda and its supporters, not the abstraction that is "terrorism." Nor will constantly raising the specter of terrorist groups plaguing other countries increase our security.
The purpose of our government is not to "save the world."
We should not be altruists whose work is built atop the blood and lives of unwilling slaves.
The purpose of our government is not to "end terrorism."
We should not be utopians seeking an unobtainable goal -- i.e., the elimination of a tactic that has been employed for millennia -- rather than a delimited and specific end.
The purpose of our government is not to defend the rights of other citizens of other nations.
We should not be interventionists seeking to destroy the dragons bedeviling other people, no matter how much those victims might appreciate our help.
The sole valid purpose of our government is to defend and protect the rights of U.S. citizens from those enemies -- foreign or domestic -- who have actually violated those rights.
(And "possible" or imaginary violations of rights are not acceptable reasons for action.)
Rather than stretch our military to the breaking point in the warped role of social workers, we should rely more on special forces and cooperation with other countries to help us eliminate specific terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. If those favoring vast military adventures object that terrorists do not respect boundaries, I ask: "So what?" Are those supporting American control of Iraq saying that our armed forces are incapable of ending al-Qaeda? That al-Qaeda is so smart, so organized, so skillful that it can survive the full attention of the most powerful nation in the world? If our soldiers are truly so incompetent, then nothing they are doing in the Mideast will increase security here at home.
Even if it is impossible to kill every al-Qaeda member, that does not mean we cannot weaken the organization to the point of ineffectiveness. Past terrorist organizations have disappeared after concerted efforts to eliminate them. (Bader-Meinhoff, anyone?)
"But the use of WMD's against Americans is too horrible to contemplate! Anything the government does to protect us would be better than that."
Yes, WMD's in the hands of terrorists might, indeed, wreak considerable havoc in terms of lives and money and property. Yet consider: our country sees about 50,000 people killed per year on our highways...yet somehow we survive as a nation. Nearly 20,000 people are murdered every year...yet somehow our country continues. Over 50,000 Americans died in battle in World War I; nearly 300,000 in World War II; over 30,000 in Korea; and close to 50,000 in Vietnam. But somehow, the deaths of a few thousand Americans on one day at the hands of a miniscule band of terrorists is sufficient to induce the citizens of this country meekly to hand over their rights to an incompetent State, a state that had so recently, so dramatically, so tragically demonstrated its inability to protect either their lives or their rights. (And that still betrays its mission through ineptitude, as the recent revelations regarding the lack of WMD's in Iraq demonstrate.)
Few in our society today seem overly concerned that noncombatants in the latest war in Iraq -- a nation that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack on 9-11-01 -- far outnumber those killed on that fateful day. (Some estimates place this figure at 5000. And let us not forget the 160 megadeaths from State nonmilitary actions in the last century. Or the number of noncombatants killed by States by "conventional" weapons, e.g., at least 35,000 in Dresden, Germany, or the 100,000 in Tokyo killed via firebombing in World War II.)
To the friends and relatives of those who die -- whether from drunk drivers, murderers, soldiers, or terrorists -- the pain and suffering is no less, their loss no easier to accept. Yet no one is using 20,000 annual murders as an excuse to push the United States further in its role as a police state.
Even the large economic toll of the destruction of the World Trade Center pales in comparison to the Gross Domestic Product of the United States. Depending upon what indirect costs are included, the estimates vary, but even at the high end, the cost was no more than $100 billion. This is about .8% -- eight-tenths of one percent -- of the U.S. GDP of approximately $11 trillion dollars. (Compare this to the current [admitted] deficits generated by this administration, which are approaching $500 billion -- a half a trillion dollars -- per year.)
Our government has -- as usual -- exacerbated a real problem with its statist nonsense of nationalizing airport security; imposing "security" measures around the country that have done little to nothing to increase our security; bailing out failing airlines and other travel-related industries; and keeping the populace constantly on edge with their inane "color-coded" terrorist alerts.
In the final analysis, there is little that any terrorist groups could do in the future that rivals in widespread lethality or economic disruption that which has been and is being done by the very government that is supposed to be protecting our rights. (Cf to the $10 trillion or so stolen by the U.S. from its citizens via a century's inflation...not to mention all the taxes seized in this "voluntary" system of theft.)
"Terrorists" (or the WMD's they are supposed to have) are the new boogeymen, the latest in hobgoblins offered up by the State to average citizens to justify the sudden and/or gradual removal of their rights.
If "surrendering" our freedom in exchange for "security" actually worked, al-Qaeda should never have been able to hijack those planes, in the first place. (Let us remember that all the peaceful folks who died on those planes -- including the pilots -- were effectively disarmed by their own government.) And if the current loss of freedoms is necessary and sufficient to safeguard our lives, then why do our political leaders tell us it is "only a matter of time" before the terrorists strike us here again?
The State obsesses about terrorists who can do only comparatively limited and minor damage around the peripheries of our society then tells us we must sanction its explosive growth in order to do what it should have done long ago; a classic example of failure rewarded.
But there is another way: don't surrender to fear.
Terrorists want their opponents to overreact, to clamp down on their citizens, to become more oppressive, and our government has gladly obliged. In that sense, the terrorists have already won.
Ultimately, though, the people who our government fears the most is...us.
Unless I missed the announcement, there has been no mustering of the militia to guard sensitive sites. There has been no recognition that armed Americans are one of the best ways to deter would-be terrorists. There has been no acceptance of the fact that trust and safety are not increased by treating everyone as criminals, by adopting prior restraint as the optimal solution, by abjuring reason and promoting emotionalism. No recognition that people have the right via the marketplace to determine their own desired levels of security.
The one course the State should take is one it never will, not in any foreseeable future. If the politicians really want to secure our safety -- and preserve our rights -- in the best possible manner, I have four simple words of advise:
Give freedom a try.