What About the Fact That Terrorists Want to Murder Us All?

The distinctive malice of al-Qaeda and its allies doesn't change the fact that we need to make rational choices in a world of limited resources.
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In "The Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror," I challenged readers to assess the actual threat that terrorism poses to America. Yes, it's very scary, psychologically, and every terrorist attack is awful. But going back to 1999, an interval that happens to include the most successful terrorist attack in U.S. history, radical Islamists have killed around 3,000 people in America -- whereas guns killed roughly 364,000 people, drunk driving killed roughly 150,000 people, and food poisoning reliably kills roughly 3,000 people every year. Americans are far more likely to be killed on their morning commute than in a terrorist attack. And for that reason, I argued, what we're being asked to give up to fight terrorism is irrational and unreasonable. When confronted by far deadlier threats, Americans are much less willing to cede civil liberties and privacy.

My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, writing at Bloomberg View, partially agrees with my mindset. He believes "resiliency is the key to successful counterterrorism," and notes his discomfort with a government that appears ready "to alter the nature of our open society" by adopting laws and policies "that would allow for the creation of a comprehensive surveillance state." This is significant. If most Americans insisted on resiliency as the appropriate response to terrorism, and rejected fundamental changes like the construction of a surveillance state, we'd be better off.

But Goldberg says that I understate the danger terrorists pose, because I consider only the actual murders they've succeeded in perpetrating, and neglect to mention their much bigger ambitions:

The fear of terrorism isn't motivated solely by what terrorists have done, but what terrorists hope to do. Although it's true that bathtub accidents account for a too-large number of deaths, it isn't true that bathtubs are engaged in a conspiracy with other bathtubs to murder ever-larger numbers of Americans. We know for certain, however, that al-Qaeda, its offshoots, and other organizations and individuals in the Islamist orbit seek unconventional weapons that would allow them to kill a far-larger number of Americans than died on Sept. 11.

This raises a fair point: the number of gun deaths or drunk-driving deaths is highly unlikely to significantly increase, while it is at least possible that terrorists could get much better at killing us than they've ever been in American history. There are, indeed, people attempting to do just that:

As early as 1998, Osama bin Laden asserted that Islam required him to use weapons of mass destruction in the conduct of his jihad, and he made the acquisition of these weapons a high priority. The al-Qaeda leader Sulaiman Abu Ghaith famously argued that Muslims had the right to "kill four million Americans, including one million children, displace double that figure, and injure and cripple hundreds and thousands." (For a fuller understanding of al-Qaeda's WMD ambitions, see this Rolf Mowatt-Larssen article in Foreign Policy.)

Is there anyone who actually believes that al-Qaeda or its offshoots would hesitate to use chemical or biological weapons against Western targets if they could? The only reason radical Islamists haven't used such weapons is that they haven't been able to acquire them -- mainly, I think, because of effective American countermeasures.

It's for just this reason that I included the following passage in my piece: "Of course we should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism." I didn't dwell on the point, since literally every elected official in the federal government agrees with it. But I do believe what I wrote.

Goldberg writes:

I don't think it's probable that Islamists will one day be able to launch a nonconventional attack on an American target. But I think it's plausible, and now that mass stockpiles of chemical weapons may be in flux in a highly unstable Syria, the likelihood that these weapons will fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-influenced organizations is going up, at least slightly.

Personally, I worry a lot more about a future where potent biological weapons are available to those who wish to do us harm; and even a "dirty bomb" could prove extraordinarily expensive to address.

Like Goldberg, I rate the probability of "non-conventional" attacks as "not probable," but plausible. I also agree with him that "libertarians and the American Civil Liberties Union -- whose voices already aren't heard loudly enough -- would be marginalized or even discredited" in the aftermath of an unconventional attack "if the core of their argument had been that terrorism posed no significant threat." So let me quote that sentence again for emphasis: Of course America should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism.

Goldberg and I already agree that those efforts shouldn't transgress civil liberties. And besides what we emphasize, I'm not certain about where our disagreements might be. But I'm sure they exist, and perhaps fleshing out my own views will advance our exchange. I'd be curious to hear which of the following points Goldberg -- as well as readers -- would contest:

1) Even the possibility of terrorist attacks bigger than any we've seen -- one twice as big as 9/11, say -- must still be weighed rationally, in a world of limited resources, against other stuff that kills us. We're obviously dealing with unknowns, but say, hypothetically, that investing $500 billion over 10 years would prevent a terrorist attack that killed 6,000 -- but investing the same amount in medical research would result in advances that reduced the incidence of cancer by half. Well, cancer kills 550,000 Americans per year, every year. That ought to be a no-brainer. Would there still be many Americans who'd nevertheless choose to stop the terrorist attack?

I suspect so -- at the very least, in a world of uncertainty, we don't even consider alternative uses for counterterrorism dollars when we commit them to "keeping us safe." It's a virtually blank check. Goldberg says:

There are other reasons that deaths from drowning or diabetes or lightning strikes aren't comparable to deaths caused by terrorism. Sustained terror campaigns against civilian targets do, whether Friedersdorf or I like it or not, undermine trust and openness across a society. They demand the adoption of security procedures that may be effective but are still onerous and debilitating.

True. Americans could react to a terrorist attack that killed 6,000 people in a way that damaged us even more than cancer. That's why it's vital to persuade Americans to change their mindset now, so that we can minimize the irrational things we're forced to do because terrorism is scary. We should train ourselves to more accurately assess risk so that we can spend prudently.   

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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