The Terrorism Boogeyman

by James A. Russell

The globe-trotting travails of the fugitive Edward Snowden have given us an unexpected opportunity to hear from our senior intelligence officials about the necessity of their far-reaching surveillance program designed to protect us from terrorism. But as shown by the testimony of General Keith Alexander, the chief of the National Security Agency (NSA), few details have been revealed about the actual threat we are facing. These details, we are told, need to be kept secret.

Yet we are awash in information about the terrorist threat from the media. To be sure, frightening images of enemies have always figured prominently for the United States in the conduct of foreign policy and national security. During the Cold War, the specter of godless communist hordes assaulting the ramparts of democracy served as a centerpiece for the American defense buildup and its strategy of containment. Ronald Reagan famously rode his “evil empire” metaphor to election victory in 1980 — while the Soviet Union slowly crumbled before our eyes.

Even if we hyped their claims, there is no getting around the fact that the Soviet Union threatened the United States and Western Europe with incineration courtesy of its thousands of nuclear weapons. This very real threat caused the United States to pursue various arms control initiatives with its bitter adversary — much to the annoyance of the neoconservative “cold warriors” who later re-emerged to lead the country into the disastrous war in Iraq.

The 9/11 attacks provided us with the pretext needed after the end of the Cold War to prop up another boogeyman — international terrorism — to replace the dreaded “red menace”.

Of course, the spectacular nature of the 9/11 attacks deeply and rightfully disturbed Americans. The images of crumbling towers with thousands of innocent people trapped inside seemed like an apt metaphor for a new age of unrestricted warfare pitting us against shadowy networks of terrorists armed with new, dastardly and unconventional weapons.

Much of the right-wing and its neoconservative acolytes eagerly seized upon the new boogeyman to justify a decade of war and targeted assassinations abroad while shredding the constitution by unleashing the NSA to listen to our phone calls, read our e-mails and cruise our Facebook profiles.

As usual, democrats cowered in fear, not wanting to be seen as “weak” on defending the country. Government officials, terrified of another Pearl Harbor attack on their watch, left no stone unturned in expanding the reach of the state — all in the name of protecting us from the new, 10-foot tall terrorist boogeyman. In essence, the Vietnam-generation that had once protested so vigorously against the abuse of state power in the 1960s consolidated the national security surveillance state — without so much as a shoulder shrug — as they took over responsibility for governing 40 years later.

But while America’s perception of the world changed on 9/11, the world pretty much remained the same.

The 9/11 attacks turned out to be an outlier and were not followed by a new age of mass casualty terrorist war. According to figures compiled by the Rand Corporation, an average of 341 people were killed annually in attacks attributed to international terrorism from 1985-2000; from 2001 through 2008, an average of 582 people were killed.

As noted in all of the databases collecting information on terrorism, the overwhelming number of terrorist incidents around the world occur in the context of local and/or national political disputes and are confined to a relatively small number of states including Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, India, Yemen, Syria and Somalia. International terrorism is virtually nonexistent at this point. Regrettably, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have played a role in the prominence of terrorist violence in these locations.

According to the State Department, 12 Americans were either killed or wounded as a result of terrorist violence around the world in 2012. By contrast, over the decade of America’s wars abroad, 1,000,000 Americans were killed or wounded in the United States as a result of gun-related violence.

If the foreign policy establishment and its finger-wagging commentariat bothered to dig a little deeper, they would discover that terrorism is a comparatively minor form of international violence that is not a strategic threat to the United States or the international community.

They would also discover that the world is actually becoming a safer place, with a steady reduction in the number of interstate wars since 1990, continued declines in the numbers of people being killed in these wars, and the complete absence of wars between developed states following the end of the Cold War.

The world’s oceans are almost completely free of political violence and it is safer to board an airplane than it is to get into your car. Conflict, terrorism and international violence are phenomena associated with failed and/or failing states in the developing world.

Like the exaggerated claims of an impending Soviet takeover of the world in the 1980s, we need to view this issue for what it really is and reign in the urge to see terrorists lurking behind every corner. They are not the equivalent of the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Instead, we get bombarded with hysterical assertions of a dangerous and threatening global environment that is simply not supported by evidence. It is a canard being foisted on the public — one that obscures the actual and serious security challenges facing the United States and the international community.

We need leaders, columnists and citizens to discuss these central points. The discourse should be used as the basis for a national debate over our proper security posture.  The world has moved on — and we need to move along with it.

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.