The Exaggerated Terror Threat

Interview conducted March 6, 2007. Listen to the interview.

Is Iraq a distraction from the real War on Terrorism? Is there a real War on Terrorism? What exactly is the threat to the Heimatland? (That’s “Homeland” in the original German.)

To help discuss these questions is John Mueller, author of the new book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. He is a professor of political science at Ohio State University. Welcome to the show, sir.

Mueller: Thank you, nice to be here.

Horton: A really excellent book. I got a kick out of it. It is a very funny and entertaining read as well, I should say.

Mueller: Great.

Horton: And I have to say, this book sounds just like me only smarter and in paragraph form…

Mueller: [laughs] It also has a lot of footnotes.

Horton: Yes, tons and tons of footnotes, although I have those too.

Mueller: Okay… [laughs]

Horton: I’ve always thought what George Bush should have done on September 11 was give a speech and say:

“Look. This is serious. A lot of people died. There is a lot of sorrow and grief. Our hearts go out, etc. Now look, for the rest of you: You are not in danger, okay? We have a ten trillion dollar economy and the most powerful government in the history of mankind. No one can really threaten America itself. Will we get the guys who did this? Yes. Will we go crazy? No.”

Basically, that is your point in your book as well. Our policy was a massive overreaction rather than just dealing with the threat for what it was.

Mueller: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good thumbnail sketch. The danger from terrorism is there. There are bad guys out there. They are probably going to do some damage, but the amount of damage they do seems to be pretty limited unless there is a massive increase of their capacities.

They should be treated as a limited problem. Most of it can be handled through policing. Also, it is important to keep in mind that fear and outraged fear can be very costly. Just to use one example between September 11, 2001 and the end of that year: about a thousand Americans died, because they drove an automobile instead of taking comparatively safe airplanes. So the fear itself not only costs lots of money. It can also cost lives.

Horton: Right. And of course, what Bush told us was that we have nothing to fear except a lack of fear. If you are not scared enough, then something bad might happen again.

Mueller: Yeah, it is hard to… Basically, when you have your approval ratings go up 40 percentage points in one day, you want to keep milking that, if you are a politician. Bush, of course, has done that pretty successfully – particularly for the first two elections.

Horton: But you point out in your book quite well that it is politically acceptable for a president, particularly one with bullet proof approval ratings, to take a moderate reactive type stance or even to back down, as Ronald Reagan did in 1983, and get away with it. If George Bush had given the speech I would have had him give, the American people would have accepted that too.

Mueller: I think that’s pretty much right. However, no politician seems to want to try it. In the two most important and destructive attacks of terrorism against Americans before 9/11, one is the one you mention, when the troops in Lebanon were killed by a suicide bomber in 1983. Reagan reacted by going to the public and saying, “I would like to bomb somebody, but what do you bomb? There is nothing to bomb.” The people said, “Well I guess that’s right.” Then Reagan eventually withdrew troops from an overextended position (as should have been obvious even earlier), and he was reelected with an easier lead in 1984.

Then there was this horrible crash of the airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 at the very end of his administration and just coming into the first George Bush administration. The [administration’s] reaction then was – and this terrorist act was obviously horrible, disgusting, and all those kind of things you said about 9/11, which are certainly true – just to try to go out there and find the guys who did it. They eventually caught them. They gave some compensation to the victims and things like that.

So it is not unacceptable. One of the problems with politicians is… Politicians are right that Americans are generally not policy wonks and don’t spend all their time worrying about public policy. But they are grownups. If once in a while the politicians would treat the public as grownups, they might come to a very pleasant surprise.

Horton: I agree with that.

I think that people are looking to be scared. You know, if it bleeds, it leads. That is what people buy, but they are looking for truth too. They’ll take truth just as well as a scary story.

Mueller: Yeah, and I think the politicians ought to try it from time to time. So should the press.

Horton: We ought to get to one of the points that you bring up over and over in your book. It is that terrorism is a tactic. Terrorism is not a thing. You said, if one could declare a war on arson that would make just about as much sense [as declaring a “war on terror”].

I particularly like where you said, terrorism is the tool of the weak. When we are talking about stateless actors, we are talking about people who don’t even control as much as a single country – who are trying to fight a war without a base.

And the reason terrorism works [at all] is because of the reaction.

Isn’t that what the commies – the internal subversion kind – used to say, that “the action is in the reaction”?

Mueller: Yeah, and guerrillas and terrorists frequently use that. They certainly used it in Algeria against the French. They couldn’t do very much, but the French in overreacting could play very much into their hands.

Osama bin Laden actually said that. In 2004 he had a statement saying, “our goal is to bankrupt the country,” – the United States (which is a pretty extravagant idea, I must say).

The way it would be done was to go someplace and wave a flag that says al-Qaeda. The U.S. sends troops there and bankrupts the country by chasing after this guy with the flag.

Bin Laden was also very gung-ho about fear right after 9/11. He talked about how the United States was filled with fear from north to south, from east to west. “Thank God for that,” he said. So that is exactly what they want.

People say, for example, that terrorism is an existential threat to the U.S., or that our survival is at stake. The only way that could possibly be true, was if we did it to ourselves as a reaction.

In some respects what they are saying is, “not only are the terrorists suicidal, but so are we. If we get provoked enough, we are going to tear up the Bill of Rights, tear up the Constitution and become a totalitarian state – out of fear and completely reorganize society in just the way the terrorists would want.”

It [this scenario] seems unlikely to me but the dynamic is that the enemy, in the biggest sense, is us – not the terrorists.

Horton: When you talk about the terrorists wanting us to reorder our society, it’s not so that they could come and rule our police state as an Islamic Caliphate. It’s to make our government clamp down, so that you and I feel we’ve been infringed, and turn us against our government.

That’s what Robert Pape says, that the terrorist’s easiest targets are democracies. For example, the Chinese have a war against Muslim extremists, but they [Muslim extremists] don’t bother with suicide bombing in China because the Politburo wouldn’t care, it wouldn’t react. The people in China don’t have the power to put that kind of pressure on their government.

But Americans do. If he can’t make us feel bad for Arab and Muslim women and children being bombed, at least he can make us care about our own liberty and turn us against the government. I have to say it is working. I hate this government. They violate my rights and everybody else’s every day.

Mueller: Yeah, they are also wasting a huge amount of money trying to protect everything that you can conceive a terrorist might attack. Everything is a potential target. I dare say there are an infinite number of targets. This scurrying around in Washington to protect everything is Quixotic, to say the least.

An official study states there’s somewhere like 80,000 targets in the United States I understand it has been updated. Now there is another 300,000 targets in the United States – including miniature golf courses. My favorite is a little water park in Florida called Weeki Wachee Springs. Basically, anyplace that a few people get together could be a target – you know – any McDonald’s.

So you have this incredible amount of bureaucratic effort and expenditures trying to chase all over the place and figure out what a target might be. Then the people who happen to be the targets love being targets, because if you got targets and you get on the target list according to the Department of Homeland Security, you might also get some money from them. So people are busily working on improving their target profiles so that they can gouge more money out of the federal government.

Horton: So it is not just the Security-Intelligence Complex that’s grown up, but as you say, completely unrelated things like miniature golf courses get on the dole as well.

Mueller: Yeah, in Ohio there is a Department of Homeland Security in the state office, and I looked at their – every state has their own department, which is mostly funded by the federal government – so I looked at their Website about why Ohio might be a target. It says it has all these important commodities like railroads, power plants and roads… as if no other state in the country has those.

You start thinking, “what could be a target?” You don’t need much imagination to find just about everything [is a target]. My biggest fear is that they [cops] are going to find a couple of terrorists playing with matches someplace with a map of Oregon in front them and say, “Oh my God, forest fires!” Then they [Homeland Security] send someone out to protect every tree. It is really ludicrous.

Horton: [Laughs] It won’t be long now either. I can see it coming. Never mind the fact that it is always federal government employees who start the massive forest fires every year anyway.

Mueller: Yeah, that’s true. [Laughs]

Horton: Now you brought up a very important point there. These state-run Departments of Homeland Security and then the local police departments below them in jurisdiction become heavily dependent on these federal dollars. If I can get strict constructionist on you here – this is quite contrary to the separation of powers and the checks and balances in our federal system.

Mueller: The local governments are always trying to gouge as much money as they can out of the federal government. It would be unnatural if they didn’t. They do it in all sorts of ways, but there is also a downside that some police chiefs are worried about.

The federal government is requiring them [local police departments] – they also do it often of their own concerns – to spend a lot of time chasing after terrorists, who don’t seem really much to exist. The result is that they have relaxed some of their effort to police other crime. The rise of violent crime, at least as some police chiefs are claiming, is because they have diverted too much attention to terrorism.

This even happens to the FBI. After 9/11 suddenly two thirds of all the agents, who were working on crime, started working on terrorism. There has been a lot of crime since 9/11, but not very much terrorism in the United States. It is a real question of priorities there.

Horton: Particularly when you are talking about the national level. Most of the crimes that are prosecuted by the FBI are the kind of crimes that… well, frankly, Republicans get away with – white collar crimes.

Mueller: [Laughs] But yeah… They [FBI] are often going after gambling, kidnapping, and organized crime. If you are in any of those businesses, then terrorism is pretty good, because it is taking some of the heat off of you.

The more you read about some of the things with the FBI and the National Security Agency as well – it is just a massive amount of confusion. They spend hundreds of millions – actually billions – on new computer systems, most of which still don’t really work very well. It has been total hysteria.

In the aftermath of 9/11 there was obviously a lot of panic, concern, and emotion. Now, five years after 9/11 and after this election, I hope people will be willing to take a reasonable look at this as a policy issue, in which an awful lot of monies, effort, and in some cases lives have been wasted. One of the purposes of my book is to try to get people to reevaluate it from the ground up.

The biggest consequence [of these panic reactions to terror] is that they made politically possible the war in Iraq, which has proved to be a massive disaster. It has killed far more Americans than died on 9/11.

Horton: Yeah, I think it’s taken far too long for it to be “okay” for us to have this kind of debate. I have to admit, when I saw your article in Foreign Affairs last fall, I begged Jeremy to make it the Spotlight article on I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that Foreign Affairs is publishing this article, basically calling the war on terrorism bunk.”

Mueller: Yeah, but did he buy it?

Horton: Oh, yeah. Indeed, we ran it as the Spotlight. I blogged all about it and said, “See everybody? It’s what I am trying to tell you. People say that the Iraq war is a diversion from the real war on terrorism.”

Well – Robert Dreyfuss, the great reporter, in a Rolling Stone article, called it “The Phony War.”

Mueller: That’s right. He had an article around that time. I’ve got a website, Overblown, at Ohio State, and tried to list a lot of the articles that are in the same ball park. By the way, that same article got a very favorable notice on the John Birch Society Website. So it’s not only from the left that this is coming. Veronique de Rugy, who works at the American Enterprise Institute, is very much on the same wavelength. John Stossel, who is not exactly known as a left winger, did a thing on ABC a couple weeks ago on fear and worry generally – including that about terrorism, and she and I were on that. The American Spectator online had one guy sort of wading in similarly. He doesn’t like that fact that I said somewhat nice things about Michael Moore, but – you know – we can handle that. So it’s not just from the left [that the position that terrorism fears are overblown is supported].

But there is [also] plenty of disagreement against my position.

By the way, one thing really surprised me when I wrote that article for Foreign Affairs and developed it more in the book: I was arguing that a possible reason for why there hasn’t been an attack since 9/11 in the U.S. is that there aren’t any terrorists here.

Now it is possible that that’s wrong, but everybody was surprised that this [hypothesis] could even be brought up. Now it fits the evidence perfectly. It’s one that you might want to dig into, and you might end up disagreeing with it. But why should it be a surprise that someone should say that [there are no terrorists]? Why should it be so shocking? It is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis to explain an obvious event [that no terrorist acts have occurred] that has been rather surprising.

There are other reasons why [there have been no attacks in the U.S.] and I try to evaluate those in the article as well and the book as well. What is striking to me is that these ideas are [perceived as] so strange. I think they should be part of the public debate – even part of the conventional wisdom. That doesn’t mean they are right. The conventional wisdom is frequently wrong, but they ought to be out there.

You know, I have been called a “heretic” – I’m very happy about that – by Governor Kean, of the 9/11 Commission Report. I love that, because it implies that the orthodoxy has become a religion. But it really shouldn’t be heretical. It should be a reasonable policy issue that you may end up deciding you don’t agree with it, but it should be part of the public debate. So far it really hasn’t been.

Horton: Especially when Governor Kean confirms your thesis. He’s said publicly in some press conferences that he doesn’t believe there are any “sleeper cells” in America at all.

Mueller: That’s right. The FBI said that too. As of 2005 they had a secret report – why it should be secret I don’t know, but I have some suspicions – which was leaked to ABC News. It said that they had been unable to find any true al-Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States. They had found a few flakes and problem people, many of whom probably it is good to get off the street, but no really true terrorist cell. That’s a big change.

In 2003 the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, was saying that, although we haven’t found any, we know they are here, and they have the ability and the intent to commit major disasters, and the propensity to do that is increasing. In his most recent statement before the same committee in 2007, he just didn’t say anything like that at all.

They just haven’t been found.

Horton: Yeah, and there have been no attacks – not even so much as a Luby’s massacre. That was a big deal down here in Texas. In Killeen this crazy guy drove his truck through the wall of Luby’s Restaurant and just started shooting people. It seems like any half-wit jihadist could do something like that, and yet – not even that.

Mueller: That’s right, nor have there even been attempts like that. There hasn’t been anything. What they come up with is a number of people who seem to be plotting or thinking about it. Most of those guys would probably have never pulled off anything anyway. If they did, they’d mostly hurt themselves, not other people.

But yes. When you think about how easy it is… This country… of course, it is vulnerable. People say, “are we vulnerable?” Well, any society, certainly any free society, is. We have crime, and we have other bad things happen. There is a certain amount of risk that attends to living in a society, particularly a free one, but nothing happens…

Somebody could just walk into a McDonald’s and start shooting and say, “God is great,” but even that hasn’t happened.

Horton: Right. And you say in your article that our government has deliberately encouraged this kind of mistaken thinking. You say, the society at large has seen 9/11 not as an aberration, as al-Qaeda’s last best gasp or Hail Mary attempt, but instead as a harbinger of things to come. “This is the new world we live in now, where there could be a 9/11 at any time.”

Mueller: Yeah, we’ve been saying it for five and a half years now. We are coming up on the five and a half year anniversary in a few days. One of the things I do is look at al-Qaeda’s capabilities and what they have actually done. I certainly do not discount the idea that they do exist and are up to bad things. But 9/11 in many respects was counterproductive from their standpoint because it really turned huge numbers of people against them – including radical Islamists in many places.

Furthermore, there are two studies out of different think tanks in Washington, one RAND and one CSIS, in which they list all the terrorist attacks that have taken place since 9/11 outside of war zones throughout the whole world perpetrated by Muslim extremists. It doesn’t make very pleasant reading. It includes London, Bali and Madrid and all that. But if you add the total number of all the people killed in all those horrible events, it still comes out to be maybe a thousand or so over five years. That is about 200 people per year. Now that is 200 too many obviously, but it’s not an existential threat to much of anything. Just by contrast, the number of people who died by drowning in bathtubs each year in the U.S. is somewhere between three and four hundred. I don’t want to trivialize the deaths from terrorism obviously, but it does put it in a bit of context. To think that some guy sitting in a cave with a goat and a well-thumbed Koran, as one person has put it, can declare war on the U.S. and the whole Western world – or whatever the hell he is declaring war on – and to really take that seriously is bizarre, it seems to me.

Horton: I like how you make the comparison to Japan in the book. The Japanese had an actual empire, a navy and a monopoly of force in a particular geography and everything. Yet there was no chance whatsoever – none – that they were going to invade the mainland of the United States. After the war one of the Japanese generals said, “Are you kidding? There would have been a rifle behind every blade of grass.”

Mueller: Yeah, and the logistics of just getting there were impossible and the Americans knew that at the time. Nonetheless, there was this concern that they’d have these Japanese people within the United States [U.S. citizens] that would work with their friends oversees to do this [help a Japanese invasion]. We imprisoned 120,000 of them, and there were fears continuously. Even people like Walter Lippmann, one of the great political columnists of the time, was writing in 1942 after Pearl Harbor, “Well they haven’t attacked us yet on the mainland, but that only proves that they are waiting for the right moment.”

So if they attack, it proves they are attacking. If they don’t attack, it proves that they are going to attack. You can’t win with that way of looking at things.

Horton: True Rumsfeldian logic there.

Mueller: That’s right. Absence of evidence is evidence of existence.


Horton: Absolutely. There is another thing about the tactics of Osama bin Laden. In James Bamford’s great book, A Pretext for War, he quotes Ayman al-Zawahiri as saying, “What we are trying to do with this attack is lure the Americans to come and fight the war personally in our sand, where they’re within rifle-range. It’s been so hard for Osama bin Laden to convince people that we need to fight the ‘far enemy,’ when they all want to fight their local governments. So our big challenge is to slap the Americans in the face hard enough to get them to come here where we can bleed them to death on our terms.”

And we’ve done really exactly what he wanted us to do, right?

Mueller: Within Iraq, yes.

I think, if they were thinking they would get the U.S. bogged down in another Afghanistan, the way the Soviets were, they were wrong, though now things seem to be getting worse and worse over there, so maybe in the long term, you’d take a different perspective on it.

But in the case of Iraq… In fact, I wrote in Reason magazine, in January, 2003, in a debate over whether we should go over to Iraq. I just pointed out that if you take over Iraq, it is going to put a whole bunch of American soldiers within rifle range of terrorists who want to do ill to the United States. That has proved to be the case big time. It’s been a disaster.

Horton: Right. Now let’s get back, if we can, to the “doom boom” as it is called in Washington DC. You’ve reported in your book on the security-intelligence-Homeland Security-welfare-complex.

How big is it, and will it ever go away?

Mueller: Well I am pretty pessimistic on the last part, I must say. It is very large. One economist at George Mason university has calculated that if 9/11 hadn’t happened, you would have expected over the next few years four or five billion dollars of federal money to be pumped into the general Washington DC area. Because of 9/11 it’s more like fourteen or fifteen billion over the same period of time.

Thus, if you bought a house in Washington before 9/11, that was a really good idea. There has been this massive wealth aggregation in that area so that now the Washington Post reported recently that the two wealthiest suburbs – the two wealthiest large counties in the entire country – are now in the Washington DC area.

They are calling it the “doom boom.” I think Washington has benefited a lot, but every city and county and whatever around the country is trying to do so. The Department of Homeland Security decided early on that they wanted to figure out what the most important target cities within the United States were. So they came up with seven – mostly the usual suspects, like New York, Washington etc. Then all these other cities, probably including Columbus, Ohio where I am, immediately went to Washington and said, “Hey, we want to be targets too.”


So they said, “Okay, there’s 30 cities.” Then other cities piled in, and last I heard there are now about 80 cities that are primary targets and have to be protected.

Needless to say, each of those cities says, “If we are targets, then we need some money here to protect us from all these evil terrorists that you think are going to blow us up, so start sending the money.”

So it has become this massive boondoggle. It is throughout the rest of the country as well. If you are in a business that is selling something that helps with security, like security cameras, and you find that the Department of Homeland Security wants to put a camera on every person in the history of the universe, then you are in Washington really quick with your cameras and your catalogs. When you get there you are not likely to say, “Well, you don’t really need all this stuff but we can sell it to you if you want.” You are much more likely to say, “You really need our stuff. It’s really important. We have to keep a watch on everybody in every corner of the country – so please buy our cameras.”

Horton: I am so glad you brought that one up too. That’s something hardly anyone ever complains about. I doubt if there are many American cities anywhere – in any single state in the Union – that don’t have “publicly owned” government cameras up all over the roads. If they had made it somehow through 2001 without cameras, they all have them now.

Mueller: Yeah, I…

Horton: That is straight out of 1984. When I was a kid and read George Orwell, that was the big deal when he went to meet his girlfriend in public and they had to whisper out of the corners of their mouths or someone on the camera might see them talking.

Mueller: Yes, it is getting that way. It’s also not really clear how much good these cameras really do, even from the standpoint of the people putting them up. The Los Angeles Times had a report about a little town in Alaska that now has one security camera for every 30 residents. It’s a town of about 2,400 people, and the Department of Homeland Security said terrorists are going to sneak evil weapons into this little town in Alaska, which is on the coast. Then it [evil weapons] will be within the United States, and they will smuggle it down to Seattle and blow up the Space Needle or something. You get these worst case fantasies, and anybody can spin them out. We have got on the Ohio State University campus two towers that are twin towers. They are only about 30 stories high but they are fairly prominent, though fairly ugly in my view. You [could] say, “Well, the terrorists are into twin towers, so we have to really protect them.”

You can endlessly spew out these potential scenarios.

Horton: Now I am pretty sure that Radio KAOS in Austin, Texas, is a terrorist target. I wonder if I can get on welfare now.

Mueller: Well, work it out. Check it out. I must admit, I have been trying to get public money out of the Department of Homeland Security myself once or twice, but I failed. I think the reason is my petitions said, “If you are going to throw this money away anyway, you might as well throw it at me. I am a perfectly nice guy.”

I have to refine my pitch a little bit.


Horton: Yeah, you might hire an intern to help with your grant proposal there.

Mueller: At Ohio State we hired a full time guy after 9/11, and his whole goal is to gouge money out of the federal government. He’s applied for the terrorism stuff.

Horton: Ask Lesko!

Mueller: I don’t know how successful he has been. Unfortunately none has come to me. That’s the way it goes…

Horton: It reminds me of the guy on the TV infomercial with the question marks all over his suit, “Ask me how you can get welfare today!”

Mueller: You can go to the seminars. They cost two or three thousand dollars. They are in Washington and – this isn’t precisely the title, but essentially – “How to Gouge Money out of the Department of Homeland Security,” or out of the whole security apparatus – it’s not only them, of course.

So they tell you how to do it, what places are most vulnerable, where you are most likely to get the money, how to pitch your pitch, and how to run from there. If you want to attend one of these seminars, they are on the Web. They will be happy to take your money and explain how to do that.

Horton: You mentioned earlier that John Stossel picked up on this book – the article or the idea anyway – and I want to make analogy to some other John Stossel principles I learned as a young kid watching 20/20, I learned that all government agencies exist to perpetuate the problem that they are supposedly there to solve, or else they have to go away. They are unlike private businesses that succeed by serving their customer. They succeed by failing. So really, if the Department of Homeland Security is to be a success, they have to allow more attacks.

Mueller: Yeah, or at least they have to justify their existence. Michael Chertoff was on television about six months ago for a public talk, and he said, I never heard anyone in the Department of Homeland Security suggest that our budget is too high. Of course he got a big laugh, because no government agency has ever thought that their budget was too high, needless to say.

In this case the danger from my standpoint is that they have to seed fear in order to get the budget going. I suppose all agencies do that. I guess if you are building dams, you have to build fear about breaking dams, or something like that. Or if you are building highways, you have to build fear about how highways might deteriorate.

But in this case they have to build fear of terrorism, because that is what their whole budget is based on. If they come out and say, “Terrorism is not that big of a deal: Maybe [John] Mueller is right.” Then people will say, “So why are we spending all of this money on you?” The FBI obviously has a similar position.

Horton: Right, and as you pointed out at the beginning, all of this fear that is drummed up by certain people for their own interests ends up making it easier to, for example, bomb Iraq and invade that country.

Mueller: In that case you also have political entrepreneurs who want to get their policies through and will leap on opportunities. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has jumped twice now – big time. He has used terrorist attacks from the Chechens to consolidate his control over that country.

Of course, the people who were really in favor of invading Iraq… None of them really talked about that before. For example, Richard Perle was extremely hostile towards Saddam Hussein. Before 9/11 he wrote about policy towards Iraq and the various things the U.S. government should do – speaking from the neoconservative position. Perle nowhere says that we should invade them. He thought that was politically impossible. He was undoubtedly right, but after 9/11 he is in there swinging as are other rather like-minded people.

So that’s what you get when these disasters take place. You have people making use of them to carry out policies or agendas that were not politically possible before, but now suddenly are.

That is perfectly natural in politics. People do that all the time. An event takes place. It suits your agenda, and you try to milk it for all it’s worth. There is nothing wrong with it. There is nothing illegal or immoral. It is just the way things function.

But in this case it has gotten us into this disaster. It has tended to exacerbate fear, and fear is dangerous – as I mentioned: a thousand Americans died from automobile accidents because they drove rather than flew after 9/11.

It also has debilitating effects on the economy. People don’t travel. People don’t go to restaurants. It took two years for Las Vegas – it’s a long way from New York or Washington – it took two years for tourism to get back to where it was beforehand. Those are businesses. Those are jobs that are not being fulfilled. In fact, travel and tourism are apparently the biggest industries in the whole world right now. If it is held hostage by some terrorists, that could be a really debilitating to some people’s livelihoods.

Horton: Absolutely, you know the great Robert Higgs wrote the book Crisis and Leviathan about that “ratchet effect,” where the government always grows during a crisis, but never shrinks back to where it was before. Even when the crisis is gone.

Mueller: Right, and we are experiencing it right now.

Horton: It is also his thesis that all state power from the very beginning rests simply on fear. That is the basis for having a state in the first place. As you say, whether it is roads, dams or terrorist attacks, it is always based on fear.

Mueller: Fear of crime is another thing that is used a lot. States were formed to provide order, have policing, protect against foreign invasions, and so forth. So the idea of providing order is one of the main things that had to be fabricated in the first place. But once that happens there is the danger that the people providing the order just expand their grab on society.

Horton: Another effect of all this fear is not that we all just get our pockets picked for all of these people to move to DC to get on the dole, but we lose our liberty.

War is the health of the state. I just have my short little list off the top of my head here, the PATRIOT Act, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation and Security Administration, the Victory Act, Total Information Awareness, TIPS, Talon, CAPPS 1, CAPPS 2, Advise, Matrix, NSA spying, Muslims rounded up and questioned, national security letters, which is basically just one cop giving another cop a warrant…

This is the Bill of Rights undone in five years.

Mueller: Yes, a lot of people are very alarmed about that. To give you one example which I had mentioned in the book:

A Federal judge was asking a U. S. attorney, “Suppose there is this little old lady in Switzerland, who gives money to a charity that she thinks is to help save refugee children in Afghanistan, but it turns out unknown to her, that some of that money is going to a terrorist group. Could she be arrested as an enemy combatant?”

The answer was – yes.

I don’t think there has been a huge number of abuses of this, but there has certainly been a lot of inconvenience, a lot of pain-in-the-neckness, and a certain amount of persecution of Muslims in this country, but the potential for vastly increased persecutions is now written in the law. Lots of the civil libertarians, both the ACLU and places like the libertarians at Cato [Institute] are extraordinarily worried about that.

Horton: Another part of this is that everybody is getting on the bandwagon – no matter what their thing is. You mentioned Richard Perle and the neocons starting to organize to get their invasion of Iraq. You also point out in your book that the pro-gun-control people and the anti-gun-control people immediately latched onto September 11th to push their agendas. Then there’s the breast cancer awareness and the AIDS in Africa folks. Everything in the world has to do with terrorism now, doesn’t it?.

Mueller: Yes, the AIDS in Africa of people were torn because their question is: “Do you want to say that AIDS kills a lot more people than terrorists, or do you want to say AIDS in Africa causes a breeding ground for terrorists?” They have to figure out which track to take.

I want to stress that all this is perfectly legitimate. It is part of a democracy. It is part of the discussion, but it does not necessarily lead to good policy.

Horton: No, definitely not. Part of this is just silly too. If you look at TIPS, they are saying the water-bottle delivery guy and the cable man ought to call this 1-800 number to narc when they see something suspicious.

First of all I am glad… I don’t really think people in our culture are ready to turn this into East Germany yet…

Mueller: Also those tips, when they do get sent in, are almost always false positives. What you have is this incredible amount of false positives. Somebody has to read the tips, figure out and investigate them – endlessly, over and over… Then they come up with nothing.

Here’s an example I found out about after I wrote the book. Someone sent me a letter from a posh suburb in the Pittsburgh area from the water department and said, “One thing to worry about is somebody might try to poison the water supply, and we can’t be everywhere at all times to keep a watch on your fire hydrants and make sure nobody is using them.”

Now how do you try to poison a water supply by putting poison into the fire hydrant while of the water is gushing out? That is a little hard to figure out, but so those people at the water department in Pittsburgh are watching their fire hydrants day and night to make sure no one puts poison in them – to make sure there is no tampering by some evil terrorist.

Horton: Sounds about like flooding Manhattan by breaking tunnels that are – below Manhattan.

Mueller: Yes, or the guy who is going to take down the Brooklyn Bridge with an acetylene torch. You know – it would take days or months to do that. If you were up there on the Brooklyn Bridge with your acetylene torch, even New Yorkers might notice after a few hours.

Horton: Possibly… This is so funny. I was cleaning up around here and found a pile of old notes, newspaper articles and stuff. Apparently I had torn out of Time magazine a picture of all the panicked bureaucrats with their arms full of duct tape and plastic.

Mueller: Right. [Laughs]

Horton: Here I am in Texas, where even the most Republican people did not run out and get duct tape and plastic. But, apparently, if you are a government employee in Washington, D.C., this was the most credible bit of advice you’d ever received in your life.

Mueller: Yeah, well at least tangibly you’ve got something to do about it. They became a bit of a laughingstock for a while. Tom Ridge did these full page ads about what you could do to protect yourself against terrorism. Getting plenty of duct tape and plastic sheeting was in there. I don’t know if the duct tape lobby was in there working on that.


If I were selling duct tape, I would be real happy – I must say.

Horton: Well you know, Saddam Hussein was going to fly his remote control planes across Israel, Jordan, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean and spray the Eastern Seaboard with germ weapons.

Mueller: Right, we are still waiting for that to happen.

Horton: So it was a good thing. The plastic could have really come in handy in a situation like that.

Mueller: Well actually, the plastic is dangerous. If you really encased your house with plastic sheeting – if it’s really sealed – you will die of asphyxiation. It’s really dangerous.

Horton: Which I think did happen in a couple of cases, didn’t it?

Mueller: It could well be, yes. It is really dangerous. The whole thing is so Alice-in-Wonderland anyway.

Horton: The real deal here is that in this book, you completely agree with me, and for that matter, all the CIA agents I have ever talked to, who say the way to fight terrorism is – in the words of Philip Giraldi, the former counter-terrorism officer at the CIA – to “ramp this whole thing down.” Treat these guys as negligible, not as supermen.

Mueller: Yeah, well lots of luck on that. I certainly would agree. It’s just that…

I’ve gotten a fair amount of support for this book. People, including some former CIA, FBI, and military people, are writing me – even people in the Department of Homeland Security.

But I have not had as much as a glimmer from any politicians. They are terrified, that if they say what you just said, they are afraid they are going to lose votes. Maybe they are right. I don’t know. I doubt it, but maybe.

The bureaucrats, as you said before, don’t want to do that. The people selling stuff to the government don’t want to do that, and the media still loves the hysterical stuff, because that’s what sells.

Horton: I just can’t imagine this situation being turned around short of Ron Paul being the president and chief justice of the Supreme Court at the same time or something.

Mueller: You could…

I quote in the book the one politician I found who ever said anything like this. It was John McCain. It is buried in a book of his called, Why Courage Matters, in about 2004. Essentially, it said, “Get a life. The chance of getting killed is very small. Even if there are terrorists out there, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life hiding behind plastic sheeting and duct tape. So get with it.”

That was totally unusual. I haven’t been able to find any other politician who has said that, but McCain did say right in the middle of this statement, “Wait until the terror alert goes below yellow, and then go out again.” This is very strange because the terror alert will probably never go below yellow. It seems to contradict the entire point of the previous passage. It seems to say, “Stay in your house forever, never go out again.”

So I e-mailed McCain in 2004 and asked him about this. He hasn’t gotten back to me yet. So I haven’t been able to figure this out.

So they [politicians] seem to be able to get away with it [pointing out terrorism is overblown]. People weren’t saying that McCain is a coward, because he was suggesting that terrorism maybe isn’t the end of the world. Maybe that will happen, but I doubt it.

Horton: Right. If they have the courage to say it [that terrorism is overblown], that ought to be proof enough that it is not just a matter of cowardice that they’re saying it.

Mueller: Instead, what you get is the constant drone of stuff coming out of the media and other places. My favorite case happened on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, this last September. ABC did an hour-long program on that, and Charles Gibson says at the very end of it, “Now we live in peril. Now it takes a small act of courage to cross a bridge or go to the mall.”

I thought, “Okay, so now I don’t go to malls anymore. They are just filled with heroes filtering through the lingerie and eating hot dogs and stuff – wall to wall heroes.” I just can’t take it.

It is just so ludicrous, but it keeps being pumped forward sanctimoniously, and no one laughs when they should.

Horton: Yes, and the media are the ones responsible for this more than anything else. The politicians are to be expected to tell these kind of lies and try to drum up this kind of fear. But the media… I don’t think I’ve ever seen a thing on TV where they said, “Well, now, come on, let’s not get carried away here.”

Mueller: Yeah. I really looked hard for something like – an op-ed or something here and there. One thing in the book is that Michael Moore actually said something like that on 60 Minutes.

Moore said the chances of getting killed by terrorists is very, very small. Then Bob Simon, who was interviewing him says, “No one in the world believes that – you know that.”

Both statements are true. I try to find places like that. You do get things like that occasionally, but it is incredibly rare.

You would think it would be just part of the context. If somebody gets three home runs in a game, the sports pages will put that in context on the first paragraph: How often does this happen? When was the last time this happened? How does this fit into his slugging and batting average? Is he likely to become a new Babe Ruth? Whatever…

So right at the beginning there is going to be context. They are not simply going to say that, but they are going to say how often it happens, or did it last and all that kind of stuff. It seems to me that when you are dealing with anything that is spectacular, like 9/11 or the shooting in Columbine, in the first paragraph it should say this hardly ever happens, or that your chances of being killed are still extremely small unless there is a massive change in terrorist capabilities. But that second statement never gets put in. Instead it is all just hysteria about the event.

Horton: Right, and if they were to do baseball-like statistics, I guess one of the things they would have to include is how many innocent people have been prosecuted by this government in bogus terrorism cases, and how many times they told us “Oh, no! Orange alert! Something’s going to blow up!” – when they were just completely lying.

Even Tom Ridge said, “Yeah, real sorry about that. They made me do that.”

Mueller: Yeah, the suggestion from the White House – they wanted to put the alert put out, and he didn’t see much evidence.

What should also happen… There ought to be a Website on this, maybe there is – just listing all of the false prophecies.

We had one recently. Over in Britain this guy named John Reid, who is the home secretary, said, “it is very very likely that there will be an attack over Christmas, and they’ll bomb someplace in London.” This got picked up all over the place, but no one goes back later and says, “Why were you wrong?”

Let me give you another example. It is really striking to me. There was an article in National Journal, a very good journal, in 2004, in which they were talking about preparing for terrorism and so forth. They quoted a few people who said, “They thought there would be an attack before 2004 but the terrorists were too weak to do that. What’s really dangerous now is the six months after the elections of 2004.”

Anyway, the article was being written around that time, and of course nothing happened. About two years later I wrote to the reporter saying, “This is a really great article. Let’s go back to these guys and ask them why they made the statements.” She wrote back and said, “It is a pretty good idea, but I work for a newspaper, and we only want hard news.”

So if you make a hysterical prediction about how the world is coming to an end in three weeks, that’s hard news. But to go back and ask, “Why didn’t the world come to an end?” is not hard news. That is a very strange priority – it seems to me.

Horton: Absolutely. I think you also cite a UPI article that comments on how few articles there are about the lack of terrorism, and how that UPI article didn’t get any circulation either.

Mueller: It was really quite striking.

I was impressed to even be able to find the article, but Ron Suskind did this book, a best seller, called The One Percent Doctrine. In it he talked about how after 9/11 there was a plot to set off mubtakkars in New York subways, which was then called off. These mubtakkar were things, where you basically have two chemicals, you put them together, and they blow up, or they give off a lot of poison gas. That was a big prominent thing, and he [Suskind] talks about how you could just go to a hardware store and pick up the right stuff to do this, how any dimwit could do this, how terrible it was, and so forth.

Then someone for United Press International actually went to some chemists and said, “Explain this to me.” Their response was, that it wouldn’t work. It would blow itself up in the process of trying to put it together. It is something you wouldn’t even try to put together, and if you did, it wouldn’t have much effect.

This is the reason they probably didn’t do it, if they were even planning to was that it simply wouldn’t work.

So I thought, “here is something pretty interesting; here is somebody debunking this thing.” It was not only Ron Suskind’s book. This section was picked up and played big time in Time magazine. So it got a lot of play.

I checked on LexisNexis to see if anybody had picked up this UPI report by a guy named Shaun Alexander, and nobody did. It was apparently never published any place. It was on their website as one of the things they do at United Press International, and it got so boring – the fact that something people had gotten so hysterical about a few months earlier wouldn’t work. The antidote just wasn’t newsworthy I guess.

Horton: I’m Scott Horton. This is Antiwar Radio, and I’m talking with John Mueller. He is the author of Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. I have a few minutes left here, so I want to get into the war. It has been reported by the FBI, the CIA, MI6, the CFR, the RIIA, the Germans, the French, the Saudis, the Israelis, and I think every other intelligence agency on earth, that the war in Iraq has made whatever degree of a terrorism problem we really had before that invasion much worse.

What do you say about that?

Mueller: Yeah, I’m not sure about much worse.

It certainly has caused intense hostility towards the United States. It has undoubtedly radicalized a fair number of people, many of whom have gone to Iraq to physically oppose the American and British occupation. In that sense it has been supremely counterproductive.

I’ve got an article in the current American Conservative about [what will happen] after the war. It is not clear that these guys are going to start flooding all over the Western world and the United States to do things after the war.

After the Iraq war ends, however it ends, you are going to have a bunch of trained terrorists, who see themselves as having been successful in driving the Americans out. They may be looking for other places to apply their trade. Some of that happened after the Soviets were in Afghanistan as well. Nobody really wanted them back. The Saudis did not want anyone to come back there, because they were afraid they would be dangerous – probably for good reason. Some of them did go into ongoing Muslim wars, such as in Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, or maybe Kashmir as well.

So I think that’s the most likely thing for these guys. There’s not very many of them, but they might well join some of these other problem areas, such as Chechnya or Kashmir – conceivably against Israel, but that seems less likely to me. Hezbollah and Hamas probably don’t really need much outside help. And there are other places… Afghanistan might be an area they will go.

I think it has made it worse in that sense.

Horton: Again though, back to the near and far enemy. Most of these guys are going to be a local problem rather than come all the way to North America.

Mueller: Yes, there is really quite a good book on this that I use in my book. It was really an eye opener for me. It’s by a guy named Fawaz Gerges and called The Far Enemy. He interviewed a lot of the jihadists around the Middle East. There has been this big debate whether you should go for the near enemy, like the regime in Saudi Arabia or the regime in Egypt, or whether you should attack the far enemy, which is Western Europe and particularly the United States. Most of them [jihadists] think it is stupid to attack the United States. After 9/11 most of them were confirmed in their thinking that it is really stupid.

So I think the weight of opinion is on fighting the relatively near enemy, though I think a fair number of people have simply gone out of the jihad business. A lot of the terrorism that has been perpetrated since 9/11 has been spectacularly counter productive from the standpoint of the terrorists.

A really good case in point is the bombing that took place in 2005 in Jordan. At a hotel wedding some idiot jumps on the table and blows himself up – kills 20 or 30 people. It is hard to imagine a more stupid target from the standpoint of the terrorists. You want to find people to join your cause, and you do something like that? You have a hotel wedding: this image of people who have been excitedly working on this happy occasion for months – all that kind of stuff. Then this guy goes and blows himself up along with and a bunch of other people in the wedding.

It proved to be very counterproductive. There were polls done in Jordan. Before the bombing, something like 25 percent of Jordanians had a warm feeling towards bin Laden. After that it dropped to less than 1 percent. I think a lot of that is happening. Osama bin Laden and the jihadists, while dangerous, are increasingly seen as being the fringe group of a fringe group – basically Islamic nut cases. I think that is becoming more and more the opinion within the Muslim world.

Horton: I really like that as a good segue into another upbeat point. Something you say in your book, kind of shades of Llewellyn Rockwell, “You Americans would not know a Golden Age if it came up and kissed you on the left ear lobe.”

Mueller: Yeah, I have been saying that for a long time. I think it is still true – particularly since the end of the Cold War. We really are living in an amazing period of time, in which economic growth is happening. We’re getting it big time,and in some of the biggest countries of the world now in both China and India as well. Health care is improving all the time. There are problems, obviously. There are always going to be problems, but the danger of an international war that was so much a concern during the Cold War has pretty well vanished.

In fact, I did a book a few years ago called the Remnants of War, in 2004, and I just did an additional paper on it for a conference. The numbers of real wars, real wars, is really dying out. In some respects, if you use the real old-fashioned solid definition of what a war is, where it’s combatants killing combatants, pretty much the only wars going on in the world anywhere, civil or international, are the ones in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. What’s been happening the last ten years – and hardly anyone has noticed: a lot of civil wars have been dying out, and they have not been rejuvenated.

There are still some dangerous spots, and things that do go wrong, but it looks like we may be on the cusp of a situation in which war, defined in the traditional sense, almost doesn’t exist anymore. But no one is paying much attention to that.

When I say this, people say, “It’s not happening.”

I show them the data, and say, “Okay, it is happening.”

The second thing they say is, “Okay, it is a glitch.” Maybe that is right – we will have to see.

Then the third thing they say is, “Yeah, but what about the inequality in South Africa.”

So when I tell them that war seems to be dying out, they immediately go to something else, which is a problem but has nothing to do with war. What happens is you get rid of something that people think is bad – really bad – like war. They immediately go to, “forget about it,” and move on to some other problem that was previously considered to be relatively minor, but is now elevated in significance.

I call it the “catastrophe quota.” Whatever problems go away; new ones rise up to fill their space. One of the nice things about living longer and longer, is that we have more time to complain about how bad things are.

Horton: [Laughs] I knew a guy who could actually read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Somebody showed him some writing from two or three thousand years ago, and it said, “The younger generation today is going to the dogs.”

Mueller: [Laughs] Right. That is a mantra that you will always hear – forever it seems to me.

Horton: Yeah, but you know, I really like that whole picture of all these civil wars coming to an end. It almost seemed like we could have that “after the year 2000” that we all thought we could have back in the twentieth century: Where things are all right. Things work out okay, more or less – rather than having full scale nuclear war or endless turmoil in the Middle East.

Mueller: Right, there are still plenty of problems. I think the Middle East is still one of the main problem areas in the world. But generally people are living more and more in free societies. There has been a huge improvement in that over the last 25 years – since 1975 in particular. Economic development is moving along very nicely in a lot of areas, though there are obviously still many problem areas in that respect.

The number of tyrannies, real tyrannies, is very small. There used to be huge numbers of countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, that were run by Mobutu-like tyrants. There are still a few of those guys around, but not very many.

So both in terms of economic freedom and political freedom and international trade and so forth, I think there have been lots of improvements. That doesn’t mean that you forget about the problems, and sometimes those gains cause problems. You have to be worried about them, but the general thrust, in terms of human well being, has really been positive over the course of the last decades – really.

Horton: Everywhere except here. [Laughs]

Mueller: Everywhere except in people’s perspectives.

Horton: Yeah. Well, and as we’ve discussed some concrete reductions in the protections of our Bill of Rights and that kind of thing. It seems as if anybody’s bucking this trend, it’s the United States of America.

Mueller: That’s a danger that we do have to worry about. Those bad laws are on the books, though in many respects it’s not as bad as during World War II when 120,000 Japanese were imprisoned. It’s not as bad as the Alien and Sedition Acts of around 1800.

Horton: Right.

Mueller: And it is obviously not as bad as slavery, but the potential is there.

One of the problems is that if these bad provisions stay on the books as long as the war on terrorism exists, since terrorism will always exist (I mean, anybody can kill somebody for political purposes), the danger is that – unlike World War II, for example – this thing has no end point.

That is pretty scary in itself.

Horton: All right, the book is Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. Professor John Mueller, thanks very much for your time.

Mueller: Nice to be here.

Author: Scott Horton

Scott Horton is editorial director of, director of the Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from He’s the author of the 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, the 2017 book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, and the editor of the 2019 book, The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019. He’s conducted more than 5,500 interviews since 2003. Scott’s articles have appeared at, The American Conservative magazine, the History News Network, The Future of Freedom, The National Interest and the Christian Science Monitor. He also contributed a chapter to the 2019 book, The Impact of War. Scott lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, investigative reporter Larisa Alexandrovna Horton. He is a fan of, but no relation to the lawyer from Harper’s. Scott’s Twitter, YouTube, Patreon.