I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Putting the terrorist threat into perspective

(updated below - updated again with Jonah Goldberg's "response")

History Professor and author Joseph J. Ellis has an Op-Ed in The New York Times yesterday in which he points out what I consider to be one of the most important and under-recognized truths about the way in which we view the threat of terrorism:

My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.

All of this seems obvious at this point. The total number of Americans killed by Islamic terrorists in the last 5 years -- or 10 years -- or 20 years -- or ever -- is roughly 3,500, the same number of deaths by suicide which occur in this country every month. This is the overarching threat around which we are constructing our entire foreign policy, changing the basic principles of our government, and fundamentally altering both our behavior in the world and the way in which we are perceived.

And yet, one almost never hears anyone arguing that the terrorism threat, like any other threat, should be viewed in perspective and subjected to rational risk-benefit assessments. That's because opinions about terrorism are the new form of political correctness, and even hinting that this threat is not the all-consuming, existential danger to our Republic which the Bush followers, fear-mongerers and hysterics among us have relentlessly and shrilly insisted that it is, will subject one to all sorts of accusations concerning one's patriotism and even mental health.

Professor Ellis makes another important point: that even with regard to the genuinely existential threats in our nation's history, the extreme abridgment of liberties we embraced in response to those threats have almost always come to be viewed -- retrospectively and by consensus -- as excessive and unwarranted:

My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing. Some very distinguished American presidents, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, succumbed to quite genuine and widespread popular fears. No historian or biographer has argued that these were their finest hours.

Most people this side of Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter recognize that those reactions were excessive and nowhere near justified by the actual threat which was posed. And yet we don't seem to be able to apply those lessons to the threat of terrorism, which is causing us to engage in all sorts of extreme measures based on the warped notion that the terrorism threat is -- to use George Bush's formulation -- an "unprecedented danger."

The cause of this irrationality, this inability to view the terrorism threat with any perspective, is not a mystery. Terrorists like Al Qaeda deliberately stage attacks which are designed to instill fear in the population far beyond what is warranted by the actual threat-level posed by the terrorists. That's the defining tactic and objective of terrorists. Fortunately for the terrorists, in the United States, Al Qaeda has a powerful ally in this goal: the Bush Administration, which for four years has, along with Al Qeada, worked ceaselessly to instill in Americans an overarching and excessive fear of terrorism.

There are all sorts of serious threats which America faces, including the threat of overreacting to threats. As Professor Ellis concludes:

What Patrick Henry once called "the lamp of experience" needs to be brought into the shadowy space in which we have all been living since Sept. 11. My tentative conclusion is that the light it sheds exposes the ghosts and goblins of our traumatized imaginations. It is completely understandable that those who lost loved ones on that date will carry emotional scars for the remainder of their lives. But it defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency.

It would be a good start to at least arrive at the point where we can have this discussion openly and rationally -- without the discussion being drowned out by manipulative emotional appeals and cheap and cynical smears. That there is even an Op-Ed in a major American newspaper with the words "terrorism" and "perspective" in the same sentence is something we haven't seen for four years, and it is an encouraging first step.

UPDATE: Digby has a somewhat different explanation as to how and why the Administration has been able to squeeze so much political mileage from 9/11 and the terrorism threat. Digby argues that the country derives an emotional and psychological high from the televised drama and war dances which we've been fed for the last four years. Needless to say, it's a post worth reading.

UPDATE II: Jonah Goldberg has a piercing and insightful response to this post over at The Corner:

[Jonah Goldberg]

Glenn Greenwald says terrorism is no big deal.

There are, I suppose, several substantive grounds on which to disagree with the views I expressed concerning how the threat of terrorism ought to be assessed, but unsurprisingly, Jonah can't find any of them, so he opts instead for his characteristically sloppy, lazy, food-stained, vapid shorthand. Poor Bill Buckley. Sometimes it's just best to take what you've created and burn it down to the ground when you're done with it so that others can't come along and mar your creation.

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