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Reason: You argue that one way to reduce anxiety is to remember the nearly continuous predictions made by highly placed people in the government that a “major” terrorist attack is imminent. Why doesn’t the public remember such failed predictions?
Mueller: It beats me. I think the press should do more of a job of keeping that on our minds. We had all those claims by [former Attorney General John] Ashcroft that he had information of terrorist plans that were 90 percent or 70 percent complete and that we’d get attacked in 2003 and 2004. But it didn’t happen, and no one goes to Ashcroft or whomever and says, “What the hell were you talking about?”
Reason: So what’s the most effective way to ratchet down the fear—and the policies and the spending?
Mueller: Most of the risk-analysis literature suggests it’s very hard to change course. Once these ideas and laws get embedded in a population, it’s tough to actually reduce them. Certainly no one seems to be trying. Nobody’s going around saying that terrorists don’t seem to be terribly effective and that we can absorb the costs of what they do.
We shouldn’t spend billions of dollars trying to protect tens of thousands of “potential targets.” One target identified by the Department of Homeland Security was a water park in Florida called Weeki Wachee Springs, whose response was to suggest they get some federal funding. There are countless other examples: a small town in Washington state, for instance, that has decontamination suits no one knows how to use.
We should save the money and then if something happens, we should use it to fix things, and then go after the people who actually did the crime.
It seems to me that this is something that ought to be considered a reasonable point of view. I can certainly understand disagreement, though I’ve gotten less disagreement than I’ve expected.