When a theme starts showing up in pop fiction...

... you know that it's moved beyond the realm of Policy Expert Debate.

Here's the Policy Expert version of a certain concept:

Talking about the "global war on terror" and the constant focus on threat Americans face from terrorism has been an unwise strategy. It has magnified any terrorists' influence, by helping them do their work of scaring the public; it has unified rather than divided potential adversaries; it has made it hard to think carefully about where and how the public can most effectively defend itself. At best it has not helped, and at worst it has impeded, the case-by-case surveillance and police effort through which British and now, apparently, Danish and German authorities have thwarted possible plots. (Recall that British officials went out of their way to avoid the term "global war on terror" when talking about their successes in penetrating potential terrorist groups.)

Here is the pop-fiction version of the same concept:

1) Daniel Silva, A Death in Vienna: As in many of Silva's books, the plot turns on the discovery of an elderly Nazi war criminal nestled in comfortable respectability in today's Western Europe. I am spoiling no surprises by saying that in this book, a crack Israeli team nabs the latest aged, hidden malefactor in Austria and is trying to smuggle him out of the country by car. Their nemesis, a (Nazi-sympathizer-at-heart) Austrian police official named Kruz, wonders how to stop them. Suddenly a brilliant idea pops into his mind:

The most obvious response would be to sound the alarm Klaxons, alert every police unit in the country that the old man had been seized by Israeli agents, close the borders and shut down the airport. Obvious, yes, but very dangerous. A move like that would raise many uncomfortable questions. [For plot reasons we won't go into].....

Kruz had to think of some subtle way to intervene, some way to impede the Israelis without destroying everything in the process. He picked up the telephone and dialed.

"This is Kruz. The Americans have informed us that they believe an al-Qaeda team may be transiting the country by automobile this evening. They suspect that al-Qaeda members might be traveling with European sympathizers in order to better blend into their surroundings.

2) Michael Connelly, The Overlook. Not too much risk of plot spoilers here, since this book first appeared in serial form in the New York Times Magazine. Main plot element: some ordinary criminals have an ordinary crime in mind, and how can they best conceal it? By making it look like an act of terrorism -- and conveniently leaving a trail of evidence that leads to some dicey-looking Middle Easterners. The book is full of little asides about the charade that the Global War on Terror has become:

"The bigger picture, Detective. You see this as a homicide investigation. It is actually much more than that. You have to understand that it serves the federal government extremely well with this thing on the overlook [a killing] being part of a terrorism plot. A bona fide domestic threat would go a long way toward deflecting public attention and easing the pressure in other ways."

And, the LA police department has a new "Office of Homeland Security," or OHS, that is run by a politically connected but very stupid commander and that unlike the rest of the LAPD all the money it wants:

As they approached the recreation center, Bosch saw two shiny black SUV's that he recognized as the signature vehicles of the OHS. Apparently, he thought, there was never much trouble getting funding for a unit that supposedly hunted terrorists.... Bosch had heard many stores about Hadley [the stupid OHS commander]. He now had the feeling he was about to become part of one.

And, about the brilliance of run-of-the-mill murderers using "terrorists" as their foils:

"And what if we ever catch those guys [two suspicious Middle Easterners]?" Walling said, taking up the story. "They could deny being part of this thing until Osama bin Laden dies in a cage of old age but who would believe them or care? There's nothing more ingenious than framing terrorists with a crime they didn't commit. They can never defend themselves."

When novelists can toss off these points in books aimed at a mass public, it suggests that the Policy Experts' cynicism about political uses of the "war on terror" has its broader counterparts. And precisely because real threats of attack do exist, the cynical manipulation of fear of terrorism is all the more corrosive.

I guess that was the moral of a yet more popular imaginative work: The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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