The Future of Terror

In the wake of the London bombing, John Mueller discusses how to manage


Today's deadly bombings in London have stirred up a familiar set of questions about foreign policy, anti-terrorism, and international security. How vulnerable is the United States to a similar attack? What preventive measures are possible? What happened to the "Iraq flypaper" theory of terrorism? Does the persistence of terror attacks justify Anglo-American policy or undermine it?

John Mueller is the Woody Hayes Chair of national security policy and professor of political science at Ohio State University. He has written on a wide range of subjects, from defense and security to the liberating power of capitalism. His most recent book, Remnants of War, argues that war itself is declining, largely abandoned by the developed countries and left now to small groups of thugs and criminals. Mueller spoke with Reason from his home in Ohio.

Reason: You're wary of the dangers of overreacting to events like this. Would you say the reaction so far today—at least in the U.S., where the Orange Alert has been issued, but only in specific areas—is appropriate?

John Mueller: It would be interesting to find out how much money it's costing, and ask the taxpayers whether it's worth it. I think you might get a negative answer from quite a few people to the idea that because something happens 3,000 miles away we have to spend all this money on heightened security. If it turns out it costs $1.98, it's definitely worth it.

Reason: What about the closing-the-barn-door effect? When they attack airplanes, we go nuts on air travel; now we're concentrating on ground-based transit—in both cases tightening security after the fact.

JM: And on exactly the same thing that was attacked. Presumably the terrorists would be wise enough to try something else rather than doing the same thing they did before. This is fairly standard procedure. It seems to me it's now physically impossible for somebody to hijack an airliner and fly it into a target. They couldn't even get into the cockpit, much less take it over, given how the passengers would react. Nonetheless we're spending an incredible amount of money to guard against a virtual impossibility. They could still blow up an airplane, but they can't take it over. The same thing applies with today's attack. You simply can't police every single metro train or bus.

Reason: You were opposed to the invasion of Iraq. All day today we've seen ghoulish opportunists on both sides of that debate making the claim that this proves their own view of U.S. policy. Is there any real conclusion we can draw from these attacks?

JM: In one sense it's going to help Bush because it supports his argument that terrorism is still out there. On the other hand it undercuts the argument that the reason there haven't been any terror attacks in the U.S. is because the terrorists are all tied down in Iraq. I don't know that anybody has made that argument officially, or if Bush himself has made that argument, but it's certainly been around. And Bush has implied it by saying Iraq is the central arena in the fight against terrorism. But this clearly wipes out that argument, which wasn't a particularly good argument in the first place.

Reason: It does seem striking that there have been major attacks on U.S. Iraq allies, but not on the European countries that sat the war out. Do you see a connection?

JM: Yes. In the case of Madrid, the terrorists were trying to have an effect on the country's Iraq policy. And they were very lucky from their standpoint, because the conservative government handled the attacks very badly. The election came out the way it did largely because of that. If you look at the claims on their websites about today's attack, it certainly seems plausible to me that they're attacking the U.K. over specific policy matters. But of course, we don't know if those sites are really valid.

Reason: What about factors specific to the U.K.—that it has a fairly radicalized population of first-generation Muslims, etc.?

JM: Well, an attack on the U.K., from the standpoint of the war in Iraq, would be a big achievement, because there is a huge number of people, in fact a substantial majority of people, who think the war was a really terrible idea. So it makes sense to try and get those people activated. The dilemma of the U.K., of course, is that they want to get out of the war, but they want to do it for other reasons, not because of a terrorist attack.

Reason: In your book The Remnants of War you see war as being increasingly de-normalized since the 18th century. How do attacks like these fit into that pattern?

JM: They're not war; they're terrorism. That's why we call them terrorism. Crime will always be here, and so will terrorism. There will always be some nutcase with a bomb or some chemicals like the Unabomber. So when it's really small like that, we tend to call it terrorism rather than war. When it gets large enough or sustained enough as in Iraq we tend to use phrases like guerilla war or unconventional war. Sporadic cases like this I don't consider war.

Reason: 9/11 was pretty large and spectacular, and had a massive body count. By that definition, shouldn't it count as an act of war?

JM: Yeah, you can make that case. The people who do the accounting had a lot of trouble with this and decided to call it a war. The usual threshold is about 1,000 battle deaths. That would obviously pass in this case. That attack was an outlier; there haven't been any other terrorist attacks remotely that destructive, including today's. But yes, quantifying that is a messy thing. I'm inclined not to think of 9/11 as war, not because of the body count but because it has to be a large enough group and has to be sustained. And once a year doesn't count as sustained. I don't want to downplay the significance of 9/11; I'm just disinclined to call it a war. But I can see how you might.

Reason: What could the United States and the United Kingdom do now that would either accelerate or impede the trend of declining war you see in your book?

JM: They don't have to do anything. The trajectory is pretty good on that, and the developed world doesn't deserve all that much credit for having helped it along. The main problem is all these civil wars which have now really ended. But there's a lot of peace to be kept. Many countries are fairly stable right now, but because of the wars they've just come out of they're in pretty bad shape. Maybe the G8 could do something to be of assistance. I'm not very optimistic about that. The developed world in general and the United States in particular have been very slow in addressing that. Last year, a United Nations report referred to the peacekeeping paradox: You have situations where wars have ended, and you could actually keep the peace. You don't have to get into a warlike situation, but could just make the peace work. I watched to see who picked up that news item: The Jim Lehrer NewsHour did a segment on it and Business Week did a short piece, and that was it.

If we want to help, we should be working with peacekeeping efforts, and promoting stability in these countries, and of course, simply buying the materials that these countries are producing. All that would be more productive than kicking around after terrorism.

Reason: In your book, you find some fault with the belief that nuclear stalemate kept the world out of war in the post-World War II era. Is the inverse of that true as well—that is, maybe rogue WMDs and of lower-level attacks like this one are not as generally destabilizing as we think?

JM: Yeah, probably; at least we should consider that possibility. It's possible that a war between India and Pakistan is now less likely. Certainly in the case of Iran and North Korea, if they do get a weapon it's primarily to deter an attack upon them. I'm not gung ho about encouraging proliferation, but it can have that impact. In the book I don't argue that nuclear weapons can't make a difference, but that so far they don't seem to have made a difference. And in some cases they might have made a difference: If Kuwait had had nuclear weapons in 1990 it's quite possible that Iraq would not have invaded. And of course if Iraq had had weapons now, it's quite possible the United State would not have invaded—which is what the North Koreans and Iranians are thinking.

Reason: Are there any further civil society implications of an attack like today's, especially in the case of London, which is famously loaded with surveillance cameras that apparently didn't do much to prevent these attacks?

JM: They can't prevent them, but they may be helpful in trying to identify what happened and who's responsible. Even on a tragic day like this, the number of people who died is still pretty small compared to how many people are dying in automobile accidents. I don't want to downplay the tragedy, but you simply can't guarantee that that won't happen. You can't ensure the safety of every train, every bus, every taxicab, every moped, any more than you can guarantee you'll never be mugged walking down the street. If they're cost-effective, I'm in favor of measures that reduce the danger; but I'm wary of ones that are either counterproductive or more damaging than what's been inflicted by the terrorists.

Reason: Short of further hot-war reactions, what is the proper way to bring the war to the terrorists rather than always being on the defensive?

JM: Well we're always on the defensive with crime, right? Police try to catch criminals and deal with them, and we try to have some preventive measures, but unless the amount of destruction gets massively greater, it can be dealt with and absorbed. In the case of the Lockerbie bombing, we didn't retaliate against anybody; we tried to go after the people who did it, and apparently were successful. And the same thing with the bombing in Spain, which is more directly relevant; they simply went after the people who did it, and apparently got them. And that seems to have satisfied people. They're not happy about the tragedy, but the fact that you didn't bash anybody with cruise missiles doesn't seem to bother people.

Reason: But a crime-fighting approach to terrorism is an electoral loser in the United States. John Kerry got clobbered under this argument that after 9/11 he would have dispatched an army of lawyers rather than an army of soldiers. How do you make that approach politically palatable?

JM: Well you can try and make your rhetoric stronger than the other guy's. But after the USS Cole was bombed, the real effort was to figure out who did it. Same thing with Lockerbie. During the Reagan Administration there were a bunch of terrorist activities that they didn't do anything about except try to catch the people responsible. We haven't done anything militarily about the Bali bombing. And after the first World Trade Center attack the reaction was really a police reaction. And nobody's running around saying we should have done something else.

Reason: But they are. It's a very common analysis that 9/11 happened because the U.S.—going back to the Rushdie case or the Beirut bombing or the Iranian hostage crisis—did not take a stronger line. And bin Laden has various quotes about American cowardice that seem to support that analysis.

JM: But a reaction can be counterproductive. And one of the things terrorists want is an overreaction. You haven't seen that kind of reaction over the anthrax attacks. There's been no demand that we attack Dublin or bomb a factory in Mozambique or anything like that. All they're trying to do is catch the guy who did it, so far without success, and it doesn't seem that anybody's out marching in the streets over that.

In the case of Afghanistan there was a target, a place you could go. It's extremely unlikely we'll see many cases like that, including in the London case. What can we bomb? There's no target, so what you're left with is police work.

Reason: What do you make of the fact that the U.S. has, with some exceptions, been mostly free from major terror attacks since 9/11?

JM: The question is whether the terrorists exist in the United States. The FBI has not been able to find a single true terrorist cell in the U.S. So you get the head of the FBI saying that he's really bothered by the things we're not seeing. That's Descartes updated: I think therefore they are.

Clearly it's not the case that every single terrorist is so busy over in Iraq that they can't bomb Brooklyn. But terrorism is a very rare thing that mostly doesn't do much damage. 9/11 is obviously an exception to that. But the total number of people killed by international terrorism is small. So it's not that common a thing in many respects.

Reason: How would you assess the current state of the war on terror, both on President Bush's terms and according to your own thesis of war's increasing obsolescence?

JM: In general it's going pretty well. After 9/11 there was this big increase in cooperation among states. The fact that terrorists have been bombing places like Saudi Arabia means that every state sees them as a danger. So you're not seeing much of the old-fashioned state-sponsored terrorism. The cooperation is imperfect, but a lot better than it was. It's not clear how massive al Qaeda really is. Many people argue it's not really an organization but just a movement. Five different websites have now claimed they did the London bombing, and all of them claim they're connected to al Qaeda. Maybe they are mentally, but it's hard to imagine they are in any organizational sense.

So I think it's in pretty good shape. But the crime rate is also pretty good. That doesn't mean crime doesn't happen.