What Are We So Afraid Of?

In our current cover story, “Is America Any Safer?,” Steven Brill looks back over the past 15 years since September 11, 2001, and assesses what worked and didn’t work as far as preventing another major terrorist attack in the U.S. and how the government is preparing the American people for when an attack eventually occurs. Brill also spoke to PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff about his findings and recommendations:

An Atlantic reader, Darren Huff, provides a reality check over the terrorist threat (with links added by me):

I believe our fear of terrorism should be held in proportion with all of the other things that may kill us in any given day. Every year, just in the U.S., 480,000 die from smoking, 300,000 die from obesity, 250,000 die from medical errors, 88,000 die from abusing alcohol, 30,000 die from gun violence, and 30,000 die from car accidents. Including 9/11, cumulative U.S. deaths from terrorists represent a minuscule fraction of these other causes. Some years, we’ve even been more likely to be shot by a toddler or crushed by furniture.

Of course, losing our sense of proportion is the whole point of terrorism. However, doing so following 9/11 led us to a failed war in Iraq that was justified with false information obtained using torture (PBS’s Frontline, for example, vividly documented in 2005 that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s false statements made while being tortured were cited directly by Gen. Colin Powell in his UN speech making the case for Iraq’s invasion). That war that killed 4,491 American soldiers and 500,000 Iraqi civilians, and cost over $2 trillion. How much more money could we have spent instead on expanded access to healthcare, education, or affordable housing?

Losing a sense of proportion when responding to a threat can inflict magnitudes of harm and suffering greater than the inciting incident.

Brill also tried to put things in perspective over dirty bombs—conventional bombs containing readily available radioactive material—and the relatively tiny number of people who would die of cancer in the decade following a blast:

This next reader points a finger at mainstream media for stoking fears over terrorism:

Our intelligence professionals, police and homeland security officials, mayors and planners, all have done a great job in keeping us safe. Other than lone wolves amassing arsenals, there isn’t much of a threat anymore. Objectively we are much safer. Our country has withstood Civil War and Pearl Harbor and the threat of nuclear annihilation. No two-bit murderer is going to bring us down.

However, the media has absolutely failed in its responsibility. Their emphasis on sensationalism and fear mongering has created this vision of a dystopian America beset by terror and shadows. If you listened to Fox News and talk radio you’d think America was worse than London during the Blitz. All they have done is try and turn the Home of the Brave into the Land of Fearful.

For an expert perspective on one aspect of national security, Ido Kilovaty, a Cyber Fellow at Yale University’s Center for Global Legal Challenges, emails us regarding “the exaggeration of the cyberterrorism threat”:

Steven Brill, in his cover story on The Atlantic, explored America’s national security trends since 9/11 and how it’s spent $1 trillion to defend against Al-Qaeda and ISIS. In this effort, there are certainly successes, as well as failures. One particular threat that caught my eye while reading Brill’s fascinating piece is the threat of cyberterrorism.

The amount of hype and literature on cyberterrorism far exceeds its present known effects. Cyberterrorism has so far killed or seriously harmed zero people.

That, however, should not discredit the threat completely. Some terrorist organizations are indeed attempting to increase their cyberspace capabilities. One example is ISIS’ alleged “Cyber Caliphate,” which up until now did not manage to carry out any significant cyberterrorism activities and were mostly focused on activities that are “beginner level and opportunistic such as exploiting known vulnerabilities to compromise websites.” In addition, the U.S. warned of Al-Qaeda cyberterrorism threat ten years ago, but there wasn’t any serious instance where Al-Qaeda managed to mount a cyber operation against the U.S.

Regardless of the absence of significant cyberterrorism cases, the threat may materialize in the future, and pose some serious challenges to U.S. and international national security. However, the challenges are not emanating from the acts of cyberterrorism themselves, but because the term “terrorism” was never defined by the international community (let alone cyberterrorism) and because the borderlines between cyber crime, cyber warfare, and cyber terrorism, are very blurry.

For example, Brill mentions as $1 billion DHS cybersecurity initiative that failed in preventing the OPM hack. While it is tragic that such enormous financial resources were insufficient in preventing the relatively unsophisticated OPM hack, it is more alarming that we cannot place the OPM hack in a particular definitional bin. Is it a crime? Is it espionage? Or maybe the most serious case of cyberterrorism? There is simply no answer, and the terms are being constantly conflated.

Perhaps the real challenge to U.S. national security is that we lack the understanding of what the threats are? Cyberterrorism is an example of an amorphous threat that has been receiving an exaggerated amounts of attention, while the real challenge is to define and come up with rules for different harmful phenomena in cyberspace—for example, in a form of cyber-security treaty. That will enhance cooperation among states, in turn, mitigating these threats before they materialize.

If you have any particularly strong views on the subject, especially if you’re an expert in a particular area like Kilovaty is, please send us a note.