Since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept 11, 2001, the conventional wisdom among American policymakers has been that the United States, its allies and the entire international community have been forced to place the threat of international terrorism on the top of their policy agendas.
Indeed, the notion that the "war on terrorism" has replaced the Cold War as the focal point of US national security is being treated now as an axiom by American officials and pundits, who continue to express their frustration with partners around the world who perceive terrorism as just one of many global threats.
In fact, the perceived threat of terrorism in the US has already been used to justify the launching of two major wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the expansion of US military presence worldwide, as well as the creation of a new huge bureaucracy in the form of the Department of Homeland Security.
The threat of terrorism has also been critical in helping to mobilize electoral support for "War President" George W. Bush and his unilateralist and nationalist foreign policy.
But can international terrorism be compared to the threat that the Soviet Union posed to the United States during the Cold War or that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan projected during World War II? While no one would challenge the observation that the death and destruction carried out by al Qaeda on 9/11 were horrific, that event, as well as other terrorist attacks in the last three years, should be placed in historical context.
The Soviet Union with its nuclear capability would have destroyed most of the United States during an all out war between the two superpowers (and an American retaliation would have nuked Russia into the stone age). And while the Japanese and the Germans, in control of the most powerful military machines in history, had the power to take over most of Eurasia in the 40s, Osama bin Laden and his terrorist networks could not even protect their bases in Afghanistan.
Not only should terrorism be seen as a marginal threat in geo strategic terms, it could also prove to be a rather limited and manageable problem as far as domestic security in the US and other countries is concerned, argues John Mueller, the head of security studies at Ohio State University.
Any damage that the terrorists are able to accomplish is likely to be absorbed, however grimly, contends Prof. Mueller, stressing that "while judicious protective and policy measures are sensible, extensive fear and anxiety over terrorism are misplaced, unjustified, and counterproductive."
Prof. Mueller, in an article published in the recent issue of Regulation, a magazine published by the Cato Institute in Washington, contends that "for all the attention it evokes, terrorism actually causes rather little damage" and the likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is "microscopic." The number of people worldwide who die as a result of terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year tiny compared to the numbers who die in car accidents and is closer to the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.
Prof. Mueller notes that although there have been many deadly terrorist incidents in the world since 2001, all have relied on conventional methods and have not remotely challenged 9/11 quantitatively.
"If, as some purported experts repeatedly claim, chemical and biological attacks are so easy and attractive to terrorists, it is impressive that none have so far been used in Israel," he points out.
In any case, to this point in history, biological weapons have killed almost no one, and the notion that large numbers of people would perish if a small number of chemical weapons were to be set off is highly questionable. After all, the 1995 chemical attacks launched in Tokyo by the well-funded Aum Shinrikyo managed to kill only 12 people.
Hence, "assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage," suggests Prof. Mueller. Terrorism is rather rare and in appropriate, comparative context not a very destructive phenomenon. Moreover, the costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered and overwrought reactions.
In a way, terrorists force us to redirect resources from sensible programs and future growth in order to pursue unachievable but politically popular levels of domestic security. From that perspective, the terrorists have won an important victory that mortgaged our future. For example, measures that delay airline passengers by half an hour could cost the American economy $15 billion a year.
What is needed is not a declaration of "a war" on terrorism, not to mention the sense of hysteria that is advanced by politicians in the media, but a convincing, coherent, and nuanced answer to several questions:
"How worried should I be?"
"How much should I be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?"
"How much should I be willing to pay for action that are primarily reassuring but do little to change the actual risk?"
"How can measures such as strengthening the public health system, which provide much broader benefits that those against terrorism, get the attention they deserve?"
The message that officials in Washington seem to be sending these days to the American public is: Be scared; be very, very scared but go on with your lives.
Such messages, as one critic put it, have helped create "a false sense of insecurity."
And that is exactly what the terrorists with their limited resources and power want to achieve.
Reprinted from the Singapore Business Times, reprinted with author’s permission. Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.