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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Derek Gavey/Flickr

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.

2) Actual counterterrorism policy, as implemented by the U.S. government and critiqued by people like me, is not focused on preventing unconventional attacks. What War on Terror critics like me and fans of what Goldberg calls "muscular" counterterrorism efforts ought to agree on is the prudence of shifting whatever resources we allocate to counterterrorism away from security theater, hopeless efforts to anticipate every analogue to the Boston marathon bombing, Guantanamo Bay, our insane approach to air travel, and most counterterrorism grants to localities -- and toward addressing the sorts of attacks that really would be catastrophic.

3) What sorts of measures would a "War on Terror" skeptic like me agree to? Well, I am definitely okay with capturing or killing top leaders in al-Qaeda, like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Beyond that, if the goal is to prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks, money spent on those pricey nudie scanners, as well as Obama's ill-conceived surge of troops into Afghanistan, would seem to be better spent on offensive measures such as infiltrating al-Qaeda with actual human agents and shutting down any attempts to sell biological agents on the black market, and various defensive measures like screening goods at our ports for radiation; investing in efforts to secure nuclear material and viruses at research facilities; and putting in place measures that would minimize casualties if a biological agent were ever loosed. There are all sorts of counterterrorism measures I favor, especially ones that address the biggest risks.

4) I'd nevertheless caution against assuming that a long tail or "unconventional" terrorist attack is most likely to come from al-Qaeda. These are, by their very nature, unlikely and hard to predict occurrences. Perhaps one day, we'll find ourselves attacked with biological agents by a death cult like the one that targeted Tokyo's subway system; or a proxy for the North Korean government; or a Tim McVeigh type; and if that happens, the resources and attention we've disproportionately focused on the Middle East and Islamist radicalism will to appear self-defeating and irrational. We should be open to the possibility that it is self-defeating and irrational.

5) A rational approach to terrorism also demands not just that we grant the possibility of an unlikely but plausible attack, as Goldberg counsels, but that we compare the risk of that happening to other risks we face. Other risks compete for resources and attention against counterterrorism. Are we spending the right amount to guard against a meteor hitting the earth? A pandemic caused by the evolution of pathogens rather than the evolving tactics of malign people? The long-tail risk of climate change? The alarming depletion of oceanic fish stocks? Soil erosion? My guess is that we're irrationally focused on terrorism relative to other long-tail threats. And note that some of these long-tail risks, like a pandemic, could also cause society to become distrustful or repressive in ways that go beyond what the actual threat justifies.

Terrorism isn't unique in that way. Yet no one is clamoring for a "war on the flu." Perhaps that's partly because such an effort would do less to empower politicians and enrich defense contractors?

6) Certain responses to "long-tail" terrorism risks can themselves be more risky than the ill being addressed. Drone strikes aimed at Pakistanis targeting our troops in Afghanistan could inspire blowback that kills tens of thousands. George W. Bush sold the Iraq War based in part on the notion that, in a post-9/11 world, the risk of leaving Saddam Hussein in power was intolerable. As it turns out, roughly 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11, and roughly 4,500 were killed in Iraq. But for that war of choice, it is unlikely Hussein would've managed to kill that many Americans. "Muscular" approaches can do more harm than good. (See this Robert Wright post for a related take on how we should approach terrorism to minimize catastrophic risk.)

7) There is also a long-tail risk of government abuse and repression, and it must be part of our calculus. Say there's a 1 percent chance that al-Qaeda succeeds in exploding a dirty bomb in Cincinnati, and a pervasive surveillance state reduces it by half. Yet the maintenance of a pervasive surveillance state means there's a 3 percent chance that the federal government becomes tyrannical, its leaders seizing power, targeting political dissidents, and abusing minorities, until the United States resembles a foreign autocracy more than a liberal democracy. In that scenario, building the surveillance state to protect against terrorism would be foolish, even though it actually reduced the risk of a very serious terrorist attack.

Again, the risk of serious government abuses is an unknown. But advocates of the national security state don't seem to treat it as a serious possibility. The possibility of a catastrophic terrorist attacks, however unlikely, is used as an argument to keep growing the national security state. But the long-tail risk of catastrophic government abuses are non-factors in decisionmaking. If Dick Cheney's one percent doctrine is a valid concept, then it ought to also cause us to reject expansions of the surveillance state if there's a one percent chance it'll lead to tyranny.


Terrorism is a threat. There could be an attack bigger than any we've experienced today or tomorrow. But there is a gulf separating the threat terrorism poses from the American perception of it. That misperception causes the U.S. to adopt irrational policies. We spend on the wrong counterterrorism priorities, and ignore non-terrorism risks that are themselves urgent.

We cede too much liberty and privacy, and underestimate the risks of doing so.

Showing Americans the irrational aspects of their attitudes toward terrorism is an urgent priority. Assessing risk more rationally would make us better off as a country. Persuading Americans that Islamist terrorism really does pose a threat? I don't understand why so many commentators believe that needs to be done. Everyone agrees Islamist terrorism is dangerous. America's entire posture toward the world and the behavior of almost everyone shaping our foreign policy is guided, more than anything else, by the War on Terrorism.

Terrorism really does pose a threat -- but that tells us very little about how we ought to react to the threat. And for some time now, our irrational reactions have harmed us more than terrorism itself.

(Also of interest on this subject: Freddie deBoer's reflection on Aum Shinrikyo, the cult responsible for the terrible sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and the wisdom in Japan's reaction to it.)