More than 11 years after the 9/11 attacks, the American public is still barraged with sensational media coverage of the occasional uncovering of a terrorist plot. Many of these are so-called sting operations, which, rather than saving America from significant destruction from terror attacks, have the primary effect of showing off to the public how the security agencies are providing protection in the wake of 9/11, thus justifying larger budgets for those organizations. The security agencies typically find a lone young person of radical Islamist views and essentially turn him into an active terrorist so they can stage a very public arrest. They often use undercover government operatives to suggest targets to plot against and even offer what the duped militant thinks are real weapons to carry out the plan. Security agencies are essentially helping along people who might not otherwise commit crimes. Prohibitions exist on entrapment of citizens by law enforcement, but the courts usually side with the authorities against a designation of entrapment.
Because the 9/11 attacks had a rare high casualty rate and because these spectacular high-profile sting cases appear every so often in the media, the American people have a much exaggerated view of terrorism as a lethal problem. John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University, has calculated that the average person worldwide has a one in 80,000 chance of ever being killed by an international terrorist in his or her lifetime. These odds are about the same as those of being hit by an asteroid or comet. In fact, governments in the United States have spent almost $700 billion over the last decade on a problem that has seen only 14 people killed by al-Qaeda sympathizers (that is, terrorists not even necessarily affiliated with al-Qaeda’s core group). That is an astounding waste of public resources on a problem that is not very deadly.
However, the security agencies and their supporters would claim that the death toll has been so low because of such official efforts. First, they cite the arrests of people trying unsuccessfully to commit terrorists acts, but as we have seen, many of these alleged threats were either essentially manufactured by the authorities or were attempted attacks by hapless “lone wolf” attackers who were merely inspired by al-Qaeda. Also leading to suspicion that the terrorist threat has been hyped is the record of terrorism in North America prior to 9/11. According to annual State Department reports on terrorism of that era, North America regularly had a negligible number of attacks and the fewest incidents of any continent. For the most part, North America has been far away from the world’s centers of conflict that breed terrorism, and those distances also make it hard for terrorists to operate with such long supply lines from their countries of origin. The 9/11 attacks were not only jolting for Americans because of their abnormally high casualty rate, but also because terrorism in the United States had theretofore been a minor problem.
Of course, instead of continuing to waste all of this money on government security efforts, America could be made even safer by simply meddling far less in Islamic countries. No one has ever paid much attention to this primary reason that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have given for attacking U.S. targets, because it wasn’t in the interest of politicians and security agencies to lessen the fear of voters and taxpayers, who would reward them with additional votes and dollars, respectively. In fact, then-President George W. Bush preposterously told us that al-Qaeda was attacking us for our freedoms. This enraged bin Laden, who put out a lengthy rebuttal and tried to refocus the world on U.S. interventions in the Islamic world. But of course, at that point no one was interested in paying attention to an evil mass murderer, even thought it might have been astute to ascertain what motivates an enemy to attack.
But the heyday of U.S. counterterrorism is probably now over. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda central in demise — and manufacturing lone-wolf threats to replace them hasn’t created the same urgency. Even if the fiscal cliff — promising to cut more than $100 billion per year from security budgets — is avoided, security spending is bound to decline, given political pressure to cut the deficit and public fatigue from overseas wars justified in the name of fighting terrorism. Although Mitt Romney has pledged large increases in security spending, his resistance to raising taxes, even in the face of large budget deficits, limits the amounts that can be spent for defense, regardless of what he says. Increasing security spending without revenue increases (or even tax decreases) would necessitate unlikely drastic reductions in entitlement programs, which have more potent lobbies than even the Pentagon does.
Some money should be spent on counterterrorism, but no one should lament the budget pressure that will likely restrain the extravagant and unnecessary spending that has been based on government fearmongering.