Academia

Mueller at Cato

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On Wednesday, Cato's hosting what looks to be a provocative forum featuring terrorism skeptic John Mueller, author of the new book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.  The event will feature comment from former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who I'm guessing will take some offense to Mueller's thesis.

If there were a "profile in courage" award for academics, Mueller would run away with it.  He's been banging this drum for several years now—at first, it appeared, all by himself.  But he's winning converts.  The Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows—whose pre-war cover story on Iraq proved hauntingly prescient—recently reported that Mueller's not only no longer alone, he's the voice of an emerging majority of terror and security experts.

NEXT: A Healthy Dose of Anarchy

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  1. I mostly agree with Mueller, from what I’ve read, but I dispute the implication that the growing number of people arguing for a reduction in our level of concern about terrorism is purely the result of his ideas beating the opposition.

    Two days, four weeks, or even six months after 9/11, it was reasonable to believe that terrorist attacks would be more common than they have turned out to be. The passage of time hasn’t just changed the way people feel; it has provided us with evidence to work into our reasoning.

  2. Its odd Fallows piece is called ‘The 51st State’ — the Romans granted citizenship and freetrade to all lands and peoples that came under their control — wonder what would have happened had we done that wit Iraq? Sadr in the Senate debating DiFi and Chuck Hagel would be good viewing…

  3. Late 2002 thru 2005 was a very lonely time for the Sam Franklins of the world.

    Things are better now and they are improving.

    Terrorism is overblown (and the govrnment is not serious about fighting it anyway).

    The Iraq War was a mistake.

    It is so sweet to finally be able to say these things and still have ppl like you and take you seriously.

    Looking forward to coming back to the States.

  4. Looking forward to coming back to the States.

    As a wise man said, Canada’s gain will be our loss.

  5. “Mueller’s not only no longer alone, he’s the voice of an emerging majority of terror and security experts.”

    The Wired article linked to doesn’t say that at all. First, perhaps I missed it but I don’t see anything in the article about “an emerging majority” of security experts. Second, the article doesn’t deny terrorism is a threat, it just says we should deal with the problem in ways besides banning liquids, panicking every time two Muslims sit together, and announcing to the world every time we arrest some terrorists. All reasonable points to be sure, but nothing like the post claims the article says.

    As far as the threat of terrorism, the mere absence of a terror attack doesn’t mean the threat is not there. Further, this is a global threat. Since 9-11, there has been Bali, Madrid, and the London bombings. All of those attacks could have just as easily been in the U.S. No question, the threat is still there. The issue is what measures actually reduce the threat (deporting people with ties to terrorist groups for example) and what measures are just waste of time and resources (banning liquids from planes for example).

  6. See, T., that crap doesn’t cut it so much now as it used to. You should be learning from Mueller (because I have read your posts and know you have a lot to learn specifically from him), instead of flexing your humor chops, such as they are.

  7. John,

    “the article doesn’t deny terrorism is a threat”

    Mueller doesn’t deny that terrorism is a threat, either. His work is about the size, the likelihood, of that threat.

    “The issue is what measures actually reduce the threat (deporting people with ties to terrorist groups for example) and what measures are just waste of time and resources (banning liquids from planes for example).”

    The prior issue is, what is the degree of the threat? Simply applying the national security equivalent of the “one drop rule” – if there’s any threat, it’s a whole threat, and of course we have to respond as if our lives depend on it – is part of what brought us the Iraq War, which has proven to be a much greater threat to our security than any previous threat emitting from that country.

    Would you recommend that NYC respond to the the threat of second hand smoke-induced disease with the logic you recommend for terrorism? Is there a threat? What will actually reduce that threat?

  8. John said, “The issue is what measures actually reduce the threat (deporting people with ties to terrorist groups for example) and what measures are just waste of time and resources (banning liquids from planes for example).”

    That’s correct. But there’s a third category — measures that are a waste of time and resources and actually increase the threat (such as the Iraq War).

  9. If there were a “profile in courage” award for academics, Mueller would run away with it.

    Not so much – it sounds like what Mueller is arguing is probably pretty uncontroversial in most of academia.

    Now, if you’re looking for academics showing some courage, I suggest you interview some global warming skeptics.

  10. …or Flat Earthers, or ID Proponents.

    Those snooty academics hate them, too.

  11. “The prior issue is, what is the degree of the threat? Simply applying the national security equivalent of the “one drop rule” – if there’s any threat, it’s a whole threat, and of course we have to respond as if our lives depend on it -”

    Joe, it is life or death for the victims. Look at it this way, how many real hate crimes occur every year? Damn few. Yet, that doesn’t stop people from being concerned about them. If you take the last 15 years and add the death tolls of the first WTC bombing to the OKC bombing to 9-11, you end up with around 3000 deaths or about 200 a year. What a group of people were wondering around the country randomly killing 200 homosexuals a year? Or for the other Reasonites if they set off a bomb every couple of years at Burning Man and killed a few hundred hippies? Same death toll and low odds of any individual American being killed as terrorism is, but something tells me Joe and every other liberal in the world would be a little more worried about it than he is about terrorism right now.

    How many body bags do we have to have in order to admit that it is a threat? Moreover, if anti-terrorism tactics are a success, you by definition have no or fewer attacks. This leaves any successful anti-terrorism measure open to Joe’s brand of sophistry; “hey we haven’t had an attack, therefore there is no threat.” The fact remains, all they have to do is get lucky once with some Wiley Coyote trick like they did on 9-11 and 1000s of people are dead. That threat is worth taking some measures to prevent. I don’t see how or why admitting that fact is so controversial.

  12. Further Joe,

    The Wired article doesn’t say what reason says it does. It doesn’t say anything about an “emerging majority” of anything. It is just sloppy language.

  13. “That’s correct. But there’s a third category — measures that are a waste of time and resources and actually increase the threat (such as the Iraq War).”

    Fair enough. I don’t agree but reasonable people can disagree. My question is why do so many of the same people who claim that to be true, then in the next breath claim that terrorism is not a real threat but one dreamed up by a power hungry government? Which is it? If the Iraq war made everyone hate us and created such a dangerous situation for the U.S., doesn’t that just make domestic precautions against terrorism that much more needed?

  14. Equating skepticism over terrormongering to denying that terrorism exists – now *that* is sloppy language.

  15. “Equating skepticism over terrormongering to denying that terrorism exists – now *that* is sloppy language.”

    I don’t think anyone denies that terrorism exists. The question is what is people like Mueller’s point? Sure, the government shouldn’t do dumb things that don’t reduce the threat. Everyone agrees on that. But Jesus Christ, I think after 9-11, there would be a consensus that perhaps we ought to do things a little differently. At a minimum, we needed to look at who was getting into the country. Mueller at best making pendantic and meaningless points akin to “fight smarter not harder”. Big deal.

  16. Terrorism is overblown (and the govrnment is not serious about fighting it anyway).

    Sam, maybe you can catch a flight with a layover in Tehran or Beruit on your way back. I hear that tickets to the holocaust conference are going fast…

  17. John,

    Second-hand smoke is life-or death for its victims, too. So is every synthetic chemical with a 1:100,000 chance of causing cancer. In public policy, we try to get behind the “It it saves even one life, it’s worth any amount of money or regulation.”

    “How many body bags do we have to have in order to admit that it is a threat?” One. “That threat is worth taking some measures to prevent. I don’t see how or why admitting that fact is so controversial.” It is worth taking SOME measure to prevent; that idea is not the slightest bit controversial.

    Now I’ll repeat myself ONE MORE TIME. If you don’t get it this time, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Here goes: The relevant question once you recognize there is a threat is, how much of a threat? Applying the One Drop Rule – oh my God, somebody died, quick, we have to ban beer! – is lousy public policy.

    We have been weighing the threat of terrorism vs. the cost of anti-terror policies. Mueller’s point is that we haven’t been doing this very well, because we have been assigning too much weight to the former, based on irrational overestimation of its likelihood.

  18. “We have been weighing the threat of terrorism vs. the cost of anti-terror policies. Mueller’s point is that we haven’t been doing this very well, because we have been assigning too much weight to the former, based on irrational overestimation of its likelihood.”

    At best that is a pretty mundane point. What does he propose to do differently? Certainly, you can argue that some measures do not reduce the threat and ought to be stopped, but everyone would agree with that. I don’t see one concrete thing that Mueller says we are doing right now, that is effective at reducing the risk but we should quit because the risk just isn’t worth the effort.

    I will say this one more time for you Joe, if you don’t get it I am afraid I can’t help you. So what? You say it is less, I say it is more. Neither one of use can quantify the risk with any precision. No one on either side is claiming that there is no risk or that the risk justifies any and all measures. If the best point you can make is “the threat of terrorism doesn’t justify any and all measures to prevent it” you have added absolutely nothing of meaning to the conversation.

  19. “Terrorism Industry.” I love a well-turned phrase.

    The Bush administration, federal intelligence and security agencies, and many private security firms and managers (especially those peopled by former FBI agents) have been successfully exploiting the fact that humans tend to perceive threats to their well-being relative to the consequences rather than the probability, beginning Sept. 12, 2001.

    Take the Miami Seven, who allegedly were plotting to blow up the FBI building in Miami and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Should the federal Terror Industry’s reaction be based on the horrendous carnage their plan would have wrought, or the fact that they did not have the resources or resourcefulness to acquire combat boots — much less ties the laces?

    Regarding John Mueller being a “profile in courage,” common sense and economics have prompted much of the private sector to back off paranoid security measures instituted immediately after 9/11. The notable exception is the National Football League, which began frisking every fan before every game in August 2005, and continues to do so.

    Speaking of prescience, you folks at Reason magazine should not forget your own story — in the December 2001 issue — headlined “Guarding the Home Front; Will civil liberties be a casualty in the War on Terrorism?” to which I carry a link on my Web site.

  20. Richard,

    To the NFL I’d add Major League Baseball, at least in NY. At both Shea and Yankee Stadia all entrants are frisked at the gate. The measures are weirder at Yankee Stadium, where any patron wearing a hat is asked to take it off for the screener, presumably because they might have a big bomb under their baseball cap. Also, bags larger than 12″ are prohibited from the stadium, though this rule is apparently only applied to males.

    One thing that might be interesting to the economics-minded: immediately after the bag policy was initiated, businesses across the street from Yankee Stadium started charging $5 to hold people’s bags for the duration of the game. This has allowed the policy to continue indefinitely in a way that would be impossible at Shea, where there really aren’t any businesses within walking distance from the park.

  21. “”As far as the threat of terrorism, the mere absence of a terror attack doesn’t mean the threat is not there. Further, this is a global threat. Since 9-11, there has been Bali, Madrid, and the London bombings. All of those attacks could have just as easily been in the U.S. “””

    Terrorist attacks were big in the pre-9-11 era too. To claim the above mentioned attacks could have been in the U.S. is a lame “it could have happened anywhere” argument. I think that falls under a generalization fallacy.
    What matters is that they did not.

  22. I cannot conceive of a terrorist attack – even a nuclear or biological one – which would do as much damage to the United States as dismantling the Bill of Rights would.

    The former might kill millions, the latter would destroy the US itself.

  23. I have been pondering lately the history of the Cold War. The last Cold War…the war we won.

    Looking back, it appears to divide into two phases, with a period of muddle between them.

    Phase 1: Korea through Viet Nam. Lots of military confrontations. Diplomatic confrontations backed with nuclear threats. Spy vs. Spy rough stuff. Ardent propaganda efforts (Congress of Cultural Freedom etc). And plenty of homefront paranoia.

    And by the end of Viet Nam you find an America frustrated, exhausted and even self-doubting…while the communists have scored measurable gains across the globe.

    What went wrong We were competing with communism in areas where they were competitive. They were good at intellegenge, propagand and hard-ball diplomacy. they were excellent at keeping the homefront secure. And, at least in the short-run, they could wage war.

    Phase 2: After the muddled 70’s Reagan took a different tack – proposing a new arms race based on American economic clout, and inventive genius…and starting spending money like he meant it. Emphasising unique American strengths.

    Seven years later the Soviet empire gave way.

    We have been fighting militant Islam, a atavist Mid East and the terrorist on battlefields where they can compete…and it isn’t working. We must shift the struggle to areas where they can’t compete.

  24. Its odd Fallows piece is called ‘The 51st State’ — the Romans granted citizenship and freetrade to all lands and peoples that came under their control…

    To those survivors who weren’t annihilated or enslaved, yes. And then usually only after a century or so of ‘subject people’ status. That approach would certainly be effective in Iraq, but rather expensive and certainly not “CNN-friendly.”

  25. We must shift the struggle to areas where they can’t compete.

    I agree. Instead of spreading democracy by force, we should work on spreading American pop culture and consumerism (as well as Reason magazine 🙂 by any non-violent means available.

    I’m not really joking.

  26. thoreau

    Actually, I think it is exactly what should be done.

    Bin Laden has been quoted as saying that Western Culture is a threat to Islam. [At least, his version of it.]

    I think, if the quote is accurate, that he is perfectly correct. A pluralist, open culture, where ideas can be freely expressed, combined with a laissez-faire lifestyle allowing people to act as they choose and enjoy the pleasures they desire, is a threat to a closed, rigid society with restrictive, authority-based morality.

    I think the ‘carrot’ [or ‘forbidden fruit’ if you want] of Western freedom and prosperity will be the weapon which ultimately defeats the jihadists.

  27. Shitty pop music and internet porn for everyone!

  28. thoreau

    I think you have my point (had it before I did, I expect).

    After 911 it was natural to want to prove that OUR guys were better than theirs…just as in the early Cold War it was James Bond and John Wayne who were the culture heroes.

    But it was silly to think the CIA was better than the KGB. Or that our army was better than the Red Army of the PLA. (Or evan the NVA) It was stupid, however tempting, to go muzzle to muzzle with these guys. That’s just giving them hope!

    It was America’a economic clout that won WWII – not that we were fundementally better than the Wehrmacht or the Imperial Japanese Army.

    I have unbounded respect for the performance of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – they have not let us down in any way! – but (you ask any trooper) the jihadis aren’t showing any fear either…why fight them where they can fight back?

    There has got to be a better way.

  29. Or that our army was better than the Red Army of the PLA. (Or evan the NVA) It was stupid, however tempting, to go muzzle to muzzle with these guys. That’s just giving them hope!

    Not only that, when the US goes muzzle to muzzle without a just cause for war, then the war is sinful. I don’t know that the sin stains the soul of each soldier or taxpayer personally, but those who go into an unjust war with a rah-rah-rah attitude make themselves more like bad guys and less like good guys just by doing that.

  30. Andrew,

    In both the Cold War and the WOT, the military stuff is useful and necessary for defense, interdiction, and containment, but not for offense. We defended South Korea from Communist takeover, and it worked.

    I think your analysis of the end-period of the Cold War ignores the continuity of the Carter/Reagan arms buildup and suppport for the Afghans with the containment policy that we had been following since Truman. We kept the Soviet Empire from expanding, while waiting for the day it either reformed or collapsed from within.

    It also ignores the other side of Reagan’s strategy, pushing for reform. That took forms such as the 1986 missile deal, the Berlin Wall speech, and the decision to thaw relations in response to Gorbachev’s reforms.

    Another important question is to look at the what we did during the Cold War that didn’t work. Initiatives such as McCarthyism – a campaign alledgely aimed at suppressing Communist subversion that was actually just cover for Republicans to attack Democrats – and support for dictators over democracy – such as in Iran and Latin America – served only to undermine the cause of anti-communism at home and abroad.

    We need to support those who deserve our support. We need to be a shining city on a hill, inspiring people with our freedom and our stuff. We need to intervene military when there is a direct conflict with the enemy, but avoid proxy wars intended to prop up cooperative tyrants. And we need to engage in effective public diplomacy to win the battle of ideas.

  31. Reagan’s genius was to think outside the box. He started and won an arms race every expert said couldn’t be won. He proved every expert wrong…while he slow-walked his way through the disamament process every expert claimed was the REAL way – though disarmament never went anywhere, till the Soviet Union went away.

    The contribution of the Democrats was to demonise Reagan as a war-monger, while worrying about deficits that disappeared with the Soviet Union and pimping for a goofy nuclear freeze.

    All the experts pump for containment now because nobody likes to give Reagan credit for getting us out of a corner. Containment (however desirable as a stop-gap) wasn’t winning the Cold War, and arguably was losing it. The Breznev+x years of the 70’s were the highwater mark for the Soviet Union, and the FP types were talking about writing off Africa and Central America to the Marxists.

    Then Reagan starting building every missile that could be built, talked about star wars, put a hundred ships in the water…and he fought PLENTY of proxy wars, in Africa and Central America.

    We need to get out of the corner again. Our problem is that the industrial world is transferring a big chunk of its wealth to the worst political swamp on the planet. what are we going to do about that?

  32. This is not to say there are no interesting ways

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