Terrorism has become as all-American as apple pie. It is ingrained in our civic DNA, it fills our newspapers and is the backstory for every foreign policy discussion on talk radio and television. One might reasonably expect that American mothers might now cajole their children into turning out the light and going to sleep not because the bogeyman would otherwise be coming but rather because al-Qaeda might be lurking somewhere up the street.
Warning one’s children about bin Laden would be an astonishing consequence of national paranoia but for the fact that American mothers do no such thing. For something of a national obsession, Americans largely deal with the terrorism problem in an absent minded fashion by allowing the Federal government to help itself to their tax money to make the terrorists go away. Hardly anyone actually knows a victim of terrorism and I have yet to meet anyone who spends his life in fear of a terrorist attack. The disparity between an imagined threat and the actual public response would tend to indicate that the terrorist menace is phony, meant to produce a certain mind set that feeds willingness to fund big government which is promoting itself as essential to protect the country. The reality of American life post 9/11 suggests that fear of terrorism is in reality a largely contrived inside the Beltway phenomenon.
Follow the money and follow the numbers. In 2012 no Americans were killed in terrorist attacks inside the United States. So far in 2013, three people have died in the Boston Marathon bombings. Those deaths were undoubtedly a tragedy, possibly even avoidable, but it would be possible to identify many similar unnecessary tragedies in towns and cities in the United States on any given weekend in deaths by accident and through criminal behavior. In 2012, 34,080 Americans died in traffic accidents and in 2010 12,996 were killed in homicides. So one has to ask why the federal, state and local governments are willing to spend something like $1 trillion annually to counter 1½ terrorism related deaths per annum on average over the past two years.
The federal government tracks terrorists and terrorism worldwide in the State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism. If one reviews the reports over the past five years one would note that there has been a steady decline in the number of terrorist incidents and terrorist related deaths. That is in spite of the fact that internationally supported interventions in places like Libya and Syria have allowed new dissident organizations to self-generate, groups that are frequently labeled as terrorists even if their bad intentions are politically motivated and strictly local, frequently consisting of their desire to oust their own government so they can gain control. Other groups considered outside the pale by the US government are part of national resistance movements, which would include both Hamas and Hezbollah. Even though international terrorism is frequently hyped as a unified colossus seeking to overthrow civilization as we know it, the individuals in these groups have in reality little in the way of resources and reach, nor do they pose any serious threat to other governments in Europe and the Americas. But they are all still considered to be part of the terrorism problem, statistically speaking. In other words, while there may in fact be more terrorist groups around to provide grist for the number crunchers, the groups are smaller and less capable. They are self-supported and far less motivated to engage in worldwide jihad than the groups they have replaced.
So why are Senator Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Mike Rogers, both of whom should know better, claiming that the United States is less safe today than it was two years ago? Feinstein and Rogers, who chair respectively the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, appeared on CNN’s State of the Union on December 1st. Feinstein stated that "I think terror is up worldwide, the statistics indicate that. The fatalities are way up. The numbers are way up. There are new bombs, very big bombs. Trucks being reinforced for those bombs. There are bombs that go through magnetometers. The bomb maker is still alive. There are more groups than ever. And there is huge malevolence out there." Rogers concurred with the assessment, "I absolutely agree that we’re not safer today for the same very reasons."
It should be noted that while Feinstein is a Democrat, Rogers is a Republican so the comments should not be construed as either protecting or attacking the Obama Administration. Two days after the CNN appearance, the Washington Post featured a blog post entitled "The Insiders: Feinstein and Rogers say the US is less safe: Why isn’t anyone listening?" which described the televised comments as "an important bipartisan declaration," adding that "Feinstein and Rogers can both be counted among the adults in Washington, they do not say reckless things and neither goes off half-cocked. Both have reputations for being candid, measured and informed." The blog goes on to question who is to blame for the deteriorating security and demands greater interest from the media on such an important topic as well as some response from the White House on the issues raised by the two chairmen.
A David Ignatius op-ed followed the blog, asserting that the threat cited by Feinstein and Rogers is real before launching into "A modest proposal…that Obama should convene a younger group of American leaders: strategists, technologists, professors" to educate the public on why it should continue to support interventionist policies overseas. He absurdly claimed that because opinion polls suggest that young Americans favor "greater involvement in the global economy" it also means that they would support more military action in the Middle East if it is explained to them properly.
Feinstein has held many senior government positions and Rogers is a former FBI special agent so they almost certainly understand that any discussion will be shaped by where one starts. American security does not exist in a vacuum and less safe or more safe depends on where one is sitting and how one defines the problem. Either way, it is undeniably true that the United States, where most terrorist cases appear to be instigated by an FBI informant, is not a hotbed of terrorism no matter how one chooses to twist the statistics.
And listen to what Feinstein is actually saying: there are more terrorist acts, more deaths, and more large bombs being used. Bombs are harder to detect these days because of the increased use of plastics in their construction. And more groups are inspired by the "huge malevolence out there." But she and Rogers should have applied the old who, what, when where and why standard before making generalizations about threats to the United States. Terror is certainly up and more lethal in a number of places overseas but it is neither monolithic nor pervasive. And it would also be correct to note that the surge is mostly in those places that have been destabilized by the United States for various reasons.
Most of the terrorist deaths in the world take place in Iraq and the victims are all Muslims. One might also cite Syria, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan as hot spots. It should also be reasonably posited that intervention in the Middle East and South Asia by Washington has not worked out very well, but to do so would be an indictment of the policies supported by Feinstein and Rogers during their tenure in government so it is not surprising that they avoid that issue. If Feinstein were being truly candid she might note that the existence of more al-Qaeda type groups, far from a threat, is an indication that the central organization has been fatally weakened, resulting in an increase in franchising. And she might also recognize that the "huge malevolence" is a product of the political disruption that has prevailed in the Middle East ever since 9/11, largely driven by Washington’s inserting itself in local conflicts and pursuing unsustainable agendas like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which had a disastrous effect on the entire region.
Feinstein and Rogers are also integral parts of the counterterrorism bureaucracy that sustains the war effort against much of the world, an agenda that is generally speaking unchallenged on both sides of the aisle in Congress and also in the White House. Feinstein in particular represents a state – California – that is home to many major defense industries. That she believes in the unending global war on terror should come as no surprise and it is quite likely that she views any terrorist activity as requiring remedial action even if it does not threaten the United States. And, for both Feinstein and Rogers, it never hurts when a politician warns of a threat that does not then materialize because then it is possible to claim that congressional diligence clearly prevented a new catastrophe.