America's Asymmetrical War on Terror

The U.S. government and its accomplices are waging actual war. In contrast, terrorists commit crimes.


Painting by John Singer Sargent

The demagogic exaggeration of the "terrorist threat," which was the centerpiece of the last Republican debates, is easily deflated with just a moment's thought. What is the chance that any particular resident of the United States will happen to be in the same place as someone who intends to murder in the name of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, or some other cause? Less than minuscule. Many commonplace things are likely to kill you long before you encounter an Islamist, white-supremacist, or anti-abortion terrorist in the United States.

Typically, we don't find it worth the money it would take to substantially reduce those other risks. We could cut traffic fatalities considerably by outlawing left turns and reducing the speed limit to 5 MPH. But who would support those measures? So why tolerate the government's spending trillions of dollars (not to mention the violations of liberty) in its futile attempts to save us and our open society from all possible terrorism—especially when it could make us safer by spending less money and respecting our liberty through a noninterventionst foreign policy?

Of course, the assessment of the small risk would change—although not significantly, given the size of the U.S. population and land mass—if we knew that the number of would-be terrorists was growing. But we can be confident, as John Mueller and Mark. G. Stewart note, that the number is tiny. How do we know? We know because we don't see much terrorism in the United States. As Mueller and Stewart note, 9/11 was an obvious outlier and many of the foiled terrorist plots were instigated or at least advanced by FBI informants. (Attacks at military facilities should not be counted as terrorism, a loaded term coined to let the U.S. government and Israel get away with murder.) And what terrorism we've seen has not been terribly sophisticated.

Some forms of terrorism are difficult to pull off. The coordinated hijacking of multiple airplanes by men armed with box cutters (although low-tech) was no simple mission, and with (low-tech) locks on flight-deck doors it has become even more difficult. But other forms are easy if you don't mind dying or, indeed, you wish to die. It is not rocket science to come up with ways to kill lots of innocent people. Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik walked into a crowded office party with legally purchased firearms, killed 14 people, and wounded 22. In Israel the other day, a Palestinian drove his car into a group of Israelis waiting for a bus. That sort of activity cannot be foiled unless the perpetrators publicly declare their intentions, which, by the way, Malik did not do. Others are not likely to do so either.

If America were crawling with ISIS cells or self-"radicalized" lone wolves, we'd be seeing far more violence than we've seen. Right after 9/11, officials and analysts said they were certain a "second wave" was coming. It did not happen. 

Moreover, as Mueller and Stewart point out, most would-be terrorists appear to be misfits who couldn't bomb their way out of a paper bag and wouldn't even try without goading by an FBI informant. The fear-mongering anti-terrorism complex—which consists of the government-media-"terrorism-expert" industry —portrays would-be terrorists as an invincible force of crack operatives led by "masterminds" who are high-tech wizards. (The fear-mongers would have you believe that encryption was invented by ISIS.) But the record does not support this picture. Just as the Cold Warriors had a financial and power interest in having us think the Russians were 10 feet tall, so the counter-terrorism lobby has the same interest in persuading us that "Islamists" are uniquely and diabolically cunning; they will soon be making suitcase nukes, it is intimated, and bringing them to Times Square.

Republican presidential candidates delight in saying that "we are at war." Indeed, depending on whether you count the Cold War, we're either in World War III or World War IV. Balderdash! The terrorist incidents in the West in fact demonstrate the asymmetrical nature of what's going on between the United States and its targets in the Muslim world. The U.S. government and its accomplices are waging actual war. Even if the ground force is (currently) small and remote-controlled drones are increasingly preferred over conventional bombers and gunships, the war now conducted by the West is not far removed from traditional war.

In contrast, terrorists commit crimes (torts, really) against people in the United States, France, etc. They shoot up parties, concert halls, and restaurants. It's horrible, but it's not war. ISIS and al-Qaeda have no armies capable of invading the United States, no navies, no air forces. They have no ability to conquer the country or bring down the government. In no sense can they defeat us. Only we can do that.

"We" are at war with them. They are not at war with us. The terrorism we've witnessed is resorted to precisely because they, or more precisely their domestic sympathizers, are unable to wage war against American society. Those who insist loudest that we are being warred upon understand that a government on a war footing will be permitted to exercise an intolerable degree of power over us. Presidential candidates drool over the thought of themselves as commanders-in-chief.

When Rick Santorum, echoing his presidential rivals, says that "radical Islam is on the move and their motives are to destroy the western world," he's merely vying for votes by spreading baseless fear. A few "lone wolves" do not constitute "radical Islam," and motives (even if correctly ascertained) are irrelevant when capability is lacking. Mueller and Stewart describe a "terrorist" who aspired to topple the Sears Tower in Chicago, have it slide into Lake Michigan, where it would (he hoped) create a tsunami, which would wash back on the city, and open a jail, springing the inmates. Shall we lose sleep over such plots?

As I've said before, the price exacted from Americans by the cynical anti-terrorism complex consists in lost liberty, lost privacy, lost prosperity, and needless stress. But there's another high price: the social destruction that will result from the suspicion directed at American (and other) Muslims. It's well-established that ISIS and al-Qaeda want to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims in America and elsewhere. American politicians say they don't want that to happen, but the logic of their rhetoric and authoritarian proposals cannot help but sow hostility toward all Muslims.

This piece originally appeared at Richman's "Free Association" blog. 

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  1. Interesting to describe our military-industrial kleptocracy as an “open” society, after Karl Popper. Popper is believed–by those who have never read any of his books–to represent freedom. But what Popper and the DemoGOP have in mind is not freedom from coercion, and a tax-looting military dictatorship by secret vote that persecutes whistleblowers and seeks to ban encryption is neither free nor open. ISIS and the DemoGOP are competitors in the business of totalitarianism, pure and simple.

  2. I wonder if Sheldon is going to vote for Rand Paul?

    1. Of course he isn’t. That Rand Paul is just another closet Donald Trump! We don’t need another neocon, we need a crusading tort lawyer!

  3. This is all well and good if the guys trying to kill you thought the same way.

  4. “They have no ability to conquer the country or bring down the government. In no sense can they defeat us.”

    You can have a war without your enemy having those as their war aims.

    “In contrast, terrorists commit crimes (torts, really) against people in the United States, France, etc.”

    The great distinction here is unclear when it is agents of a foreign organization doing these things. The attacks in France seem to be a little bit more than simple crimes, carried out by isolated lone wolves.

    ” American politicians say they don’t want that to happen, but the logic of their rhetoric and authoritarian proposals cannot help but sow hostility toward all Muslims.”

    Richman is really saying the worst thing about Muslim violence against Western Civilization is it may cause Westerners to think less of Muslims? That may be a thought better kept to yourself, Richman. Even if you are going to treat terrorism as a crime, Muslim terrorism is going to necessitate the investigation of Muslim groups. People mass murdering in the name of Islam is not going to make the survivors think well of their attackers coreligionists.

    1. If Richman is arguing to combat terrorism like a crime, I think we should consider his case. There’s certainly a conspiracy of a criminal organization behind it. Bring RICO investigations into it. Perhaps that’s how Trump envisions shutting down some mosques…government seizure after RICO convictions.

      1. I think that would give Richman fits as well. I think his idea is we just have to take the abuse from the radicals and not do anything about it, because Muslims are downtrodden in his eyes.

        1. That’s the general argument from the left — libertarian or otherwise. We have to basically absorb terrorist attacks and accept them as a fact of life, because they’re relatively rare and Muslims have a legitimate grievance against the west anyway. We’re not in any moral position to fight them, and therefore shouldn’t even try. Just accept a certain number of deaths every year, same as we do with car accidents, and leave it alone.

          Many have come right out and said as much. It’s an absurd argument to be sure, because unlike car accidents, the people who carry out these attacks will only escalate until they face resistance, and the moral equivocation argument is just fucking bankrupt on every level because it assumes that Islamic fundamentalist societies are just as valid as liberal western ones. But that doesn’t prevent these idiots from arguing it every chance they get.

      2. RICO has been used effectively…

  5. I agree with this article 100%. The problem, though, is with the libertarian tendency to issue blanket denunciations of government spending and lump DoD spending in with infrastructure spending and things like unemployment insurance and universal health care. The former kills people and increases their misery while the latter increases longevity and ameliorates suffering. So, why not advocate for more NIH and DHS spending and less DOD spending. Or, more fundamentally, take government apart where it needs dismantling and build it where it should be expanded?

    1. Because we’re nor racist socialists?

    2. the latter increases longevity and ameliorates suffering.

      Totally! My dad, for example, when he spent 3 and a half weeks in the hospital dying from complications of sepsis in his late 50’s after 3 shitty Medicaid clinics couldn’t adequately address a simple UTI, in his lucid moments he would tell me “Son, I’m just glad the government was here to take care of my health care needs. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

      Fuck. You. Cunt.

      1. But of course, that’s just an anomaly, I’m sure…

    3. You agree with Richman? As he is a homogeneously reviled delusional idiot, this does not surprise me.

  6. The U.S. government and its accomplices are waging actual war. In contrast, terrorists commit crimes.

    Whatcha wanna bet the terrorists think they’re waging actual war, too?

    1. Sheldon has a lot in common with George Soros. He believes that bullshit too.

  7. “Mueller and Stewart describe a “terrorist” who aspired to topple the Sears Tower in Chicago”

    Yep. Crazy to think a bunch of cavemen could knock down a skyscraper.

    1. Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!

  8. “Mueller and Stewart describe a “terrorist” who aspired to topple the Sears Tower in Chicago, have it slide into Lake Michigan, where it would (he hoped) create a tsunami, which would wash back on the city, and open a jail, springing the inmates.”

    Dude has been reading way to many comic books.

    1. Isn’t it the Willis Tower now?

  9. Richman almost connects all the dots here but then stops short. Yes, the risk of dying of terrorism is tiny compared to the risk of dying of, say, falling down a flight of stairs. But the reason we spend so much money and resources on fighting terrorism instead of fighting for, say, “universal elevators,” is that the government WANTS to limit freedoms and increase domestic surveillance, and increase its power.

    Then there’s the whole theme of blundering interventionism that he misses. Do they really hate us because of our freedoms? How many attacks have happened so far in Portugal, where ALL drugs have been decriminalized? Wouldn’t that amount of freedom drive those wackos insane, if our own modest and rapidly shrinking freedoms have them so up-in-arms?

    Finally, I’m sick of the GOP being tarred as the only war-boner party. Is there any bigger neocon out there right now than Hillary, who is personally responsible for at least one of the several ongoing failed, terrorist-run states (Libya)? When will Sheldon et. al. wake up and realize there’s not a dime’s worth of different between the two major parties? Both want to steal what liberties we have left and spend other people’s money ad infinitum. The only distinguish factor is (sometimes) “pot, ass sex and Mexicans”. It’s smoke and mirrors, Sheldon. GOP and the Democrats are just Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

  10. The average American in 1942 had a minuscule chance of being killed by Nazis or Japanese soldiers too. And realistically, neither had the capacity to successfully invade the United States either (Phillip K. Dick sci-fi novels notwithstanding).

    I guess our involvement in WWII was a mistake also?

  11. The main reason for the politicians’ fear mongering is to gain power. Specifically, the Democrats want to expand gun prohibitions to include a blatantly unconstitutional “terrorist watch list” prohibition on gun ownership which violates both due process and the 2nd Amendment. Instead of The Democrats proposing more and more restrictions and prohibitions on law-abiding US residents’ gun possession, which have already been proven that they would not have prevented any of the mass attacks and certainly not terrorist attacks, allow us to exercise our RIGHT of self-defense!

    1. Pass a National Concealed Carry Reciprocity bill. National Concealed Carry Reciprocity bills have been stalled in the US Congress for at least the last 6 years due to blockage by the Democratic Party.

    2. Amend the Federal Gun Free School Zone act to include an exclusion for ALL concealed weapons permit holders, not just holders of concealed weapons permits issued by that state.

    3. Pass a National law to eliminate all Gun Free Zones that do not have metal detectors, package and personnel screening for ALL persons entering (including owners, employees and security personnel). In addition, these areas must provide on-site armed security protection for all people on the premises.

  12. What you say about the U.S. waging war is true. What you say about the odds of being involved in a U.S. terrorist attack is also true?for now. For what happens as the number of Middle Eastern Muslims increases in your society, Google: Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Belgium, and Switzerland, with the word “Muslim” after each one. Also Google: Jersey City School Board Muslim. See what you get in the real world as opposed to what you get in the more extreme form of libertarian theory and fantasy.

  13. The U.S. government and its accomplices are waging actual war. In contrast, terrorists commit crimes

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