The American public can tolerate far higher casualties than is commonly thought, particularly if they are incurred in humanitarian missions; what it cannot tolerate is the prospect of defeat. This thesis, originally advanced by Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi in their book Choosing Your Battles: American Civil-Military Relations and the Use of Force (2004), is borne out by their recent analysis of polling data regarding the Iraq War and its aftermath. American reactions to combat casualties, the authors argue, tend to vary depending on the "frame" in which those casualties are viewed. If the mission appears to be going well, as in post-Inchon Korea, Panama, and the 1991 Gulf War, public approval for the President tends to rise even as casualties increase, in what Feaver, Gelpi, and the study's third co-author, Jason Reifler, term the "rally round the flag effect." If the public perceives the mission as going badly, however, as happened in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive of 1968 and in Lebanon after the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983, then further casualties will produce a backlash and a drop in presidential approval ratings. Thus far this pattern has held true for Iraq: President Bush's approval ratings rose during combat operations (even as the number of casualties soared) and then fell once guerrilla insurgency, with its suggestion of quagmire, replaced battlefield combat as what the authors call the "dominant media frame" for Iraq. The President's principal political challenge, then, seems to be persuading the country that American deaths are the price of a final victory and not a sign of a looming debacle.
—"Paying the Human Costs of War: Iraq 2003," Christopher Gelpi, Peter Feaver, Jason Reifler, Triangle Institute for Security Studies and Duke University
Evaluating the success of American law enforcement's post-9/11 battle with terrorism may depend on just how one defines the term "terrorist," according to a recent analysis of Justice Department data. In the two-year period following the World Trade Center attacks, federal investigative agencies referred significantly more cases classified as "terrorism" (3,500) to prosecutors than in the two years prior to the attacks. More such cases (730) were also prosecuted, and more convictions were won (341). Yet during the two years after the attacks, only sixteen people were sentenced to five years or more in prison for terrorism—fewer than during the two years preceding 9/11. Moreover, this "terrorist" tally includes not only the would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid but also such threats to national security as a Georgia man who detonated a pipe bomb in his girlfriend's empty car and a Texas man who conspired from his prison cell to assassinate a federal judge. Other facts cast additional doubt on the efficacy of the Justice Department's wide net: for instance, federal prosecutors deemed only 41 percent of the terrorism referrals they received worth pursuing (whereas 68 percent of all criminal cases referred to the department were prosecuted); and the majority of terrorism convictions (276 out of 341) resulted in no prison at all or sentences of less than a year. Even among those convicted within the narrower category of "international terrorism," the median sentence was fourteen days—the stuff of traffic violations, not al-Qaeda operations.
—"Criminal Terrorism Enforcement Since the 9/11/01 Attacks," Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Syracuse University
After Jose Padilla was arrested in 2002 for allegedly planning a "dirty bomb" attack, Attorney General John Ashcroft described such a device—conventional explosives wrapped around radioactive contaminants—as an instrument of "mass death and injury." A team at the National Defense University has spent the past year assessing the real nature of the threat, and its findings are disturbing: a successful dirty-bomb attack might contaminate an area the size of the Washington Mall, and the "maximum credible events" envisioned by the report could kill dozens or hundreds, sicken thousands, and ruin a metropolis (contaminated buildings would probably have to be razed and the debris carted off, along with a meter of topsoil, in what experts call "muck and truck"). Worse, terrorists might achieve the "dirty" results without the bomb, by quietly releasing radiation through smoke or an aerosol, so that the damage would be done before the attack was even noticed. To explore the consequences of such an attack, researchers looked at a real-life disaster that occurred in the city of Goiânia, Brazil, in 1987. Junk-metal pirates salvaged cesium from an abandoned radiation lab and passed the "glowing blue material" to family and friends. The cesium eventually spread through buses, ambulances, animal fur, bars, and restaurants, until 112,000 Brazilians were tested for radiation in an Olympic-size soccer stadium; 249 people were determined to have been contaminated, forty-nine were hospitalized, and five died. (Goiânia, bitter from the ensuing economic isolation and stigma, added the universal insignia for radioactivity to its flag.)