June 12 (Bloomberg) -- Very smart libertarians often make an argument against muscular counterterrorism efforts (I prefer this term over “war on terror,” because “war on terror” reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld).
It goes like this: Why do we obsess over terrorism when a) guns, b) drunken drivers, c) any number of terrible diseases and d) bathtubs kill so many more people each year than radical Islamists ever have?
The latest distillation of this argument came this week from Conor Friedersdorf, on the Atlantic’s website. He acknowledges that the Sept. 11 attacks were, in fact, terrifying -- we are in agreement on this point -- and says that, like most Americans, he hasn’t let the specter of mass terrorism stop him from enjoying life.
We’re in agreement here as well. I’ve argued that resiliency is the key to successful counterterrorism. This is why I thought that the runners who couldn’t finish the Boston Marathon after the bombings on April 15 should have been allowed to finish the race the very next week. It’s also why I’m troubled by a government that appears ready, in response to the threat of terrorism, to alter the nature of our open society by putting in place legal and technical measures that would allow for the creation of a comprehensive surveillance state.
But Friedersdorf spends most of his post arguing against the idea that terrorism poses much of a danger at all: “Terrorism isn’t something we’re ceding liberty to fight because the threat is especially dire compared to other dangers of the modern world. All sorts of things kill us in far greater numbers.”
He continues: “Of course we should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism. But consider some hard facts. In 2001, the year when America suffered an unprecedented terrorist attack -- by far the biggest in its history -- roughly 3,000 people died from terrorism in the U.S. Let’s put that in context. That same year in the United States: 71,372 died of diabetes. 29,573 were killed by guns. 13,290 were killed in drunk driving accidents.”
He goes on to cite a commonly trafficked statistic that the annual risk of drowning in a bathtub is one in 800,000, while the annual risk of being killed by a terrorist is one in 20 million.
These things are true. Bathtubs are dangerous. Guns in the hands of dangerous people are very dangerous. (And by the way: There are hundreds of thousands of police officers fighting violent crime in this country.) But here is something else that is true, which Friedersdorf neglects to mention: 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.
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.
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.
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.
Already, polls show that Americans broadly approve of domestic-spying operations. Imagine how the ordinary parent might feel after an unconventional attack. Suffice it to say that libertarians and the American Civil Liberties Union -- whose voices already aren’t heard loudly enough -- would be marginalized or even discredited if the core of their argument had been that terrorism posed no significant threat.
It isn’t incompatible to argue for a culture of rigorous civil liberties and acknowledge simultaneously that terrorism poses actual and unique challenges. We can oppose indiscriminate domestic spying -- remember, the Sept. 11 attacks succeeded not because the U.S. failed to collect data, but because it failed to properly analyze the data it had -- and endorse greater openness in the way we discuss surveillance and counterterrorism. But we should also acknowledge that Islamist terrorists are still plotting to kill larger numbers of Americans than they have so far been able to kill.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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