Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/21/2013

“Terrorphobia”

Yes. Say something!  Be terrorized!

Yes. Say something!
Be terrorized!

.

.

.

My students are watching the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as part of our semester of Writing about the Grotesque.” The question they will try to answer in their next essay is: “Can an idea be grotesque?”

The film was made (ostensibly) as some kind of reaction to the McCarthy-generated “Red Scare” of the 50s. The question is, are the people whose bodies are snatched the victims of the (Communist) invasion, or are they determined to force acceptance of the threat of Communism on everyone in the belief that conformity will equal security?

As part of their preparation, I am having them read the article “terrorphobia: false sense of insecurity,” by John Mueller, published in American Interest Magazine in May of 2008. You can read the entire article here, but to give you easy access to the salient section for my students, I have reproduced it below. I give full credit to John Mueller, Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies, Mershon Center
Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University.

Professor Mueller writes:

Burdens of Political Courage

Our problems do not arise, then, from a national anxiety neurosis, but more from other consequences of the fear of terrorism. One is that when a consensus about a threat becomes internalized, it becomes politically unwise, even disastrous, to oppose it—or even to lend only half-hearted support to it. Another is that the internalized consensus creates a political atmosphere in which government and assorted porkbarrelers can fritter away considerable money and effort on questionable enterprises, as long as they appear somehow to be focused on dealing with the threat. In the present context, the magic phrase, “We don’t want to have another 9/11”, tends to end the discussion.

The scary professor

The scary professor

Once again, the parallel with the post-World War II Red Scare is instructive. In that atmosphere politicians scurried to support spending billions upon billions of dollars to surveiL screen and protect, and to spy on an ever-expanding array of individuals who had aroused suspicion for one reason or another. Organizations were infiltrated, phones were tapped (each tap can require the full-time services of a dozen agents and support personnel), letters were intercepted, people were followed, loyalty oaths were required, endless leads {almost all to nowhere)  were pursued, defense plants were hardened, concentration camps for prospective emergency use were estahlished (an idea desperately proposed by Senate liberals in 1950), and garbage was meticulously sifted in the hope of unearthing scraps of incriminating information.

At the time, critics of this process focused almost entirely on the potential for civil liberties violations. This is a worthy concern, but hardly the only one. As far as I know, at no point during the Cold War did anyone say: “Yes, many domestic Communists adhere to a foreign ideology that ultimately has as its goal the destruction of capitalism and democracy by violence if necessary, but they’re so pathetic they couldn’t subvert their way out of a wet paper bag. So why are we expending so much time, effort and treasure over this issue?” It is astounding to me that this plausible, if admittedly debatable, point of view seems never to have been publicly expressed by any politician, pundit, professor or editorialist (although some may have believed it privately). On StoufFers survey, only a lonely and obviously politically insignificant share of the population (about 2 percent) professed to believe that domestic Communists presented no danger at all.

Something similar is now happening in pursuit of the terrible, if vaporous, terrorist enemy within. Redirecting much of their effort from such unglamorous enterprises as dealing with organized crime and white-collar embezzlement (which, unlike domestic terrorism, have actually happened since 2001), agencies like the FBI have kept their primary focus on the terrorist threat. Like their predecessors during the quest to quash domestic Communism, they have dutifully and laboriously assembled masses of intelligence data and have pursued an endless array of leads. Almost all of this activity has led nowhere, but it will continue because, of course, no one wants to be the one whose neglect somehow led to “another 9/11.”

Criticisms of the Patriot Act and of the Bush Administration’s efforts to apprehend prospective terrorists focus almost entirely on concerns about civil liberties, worrying that the rights of innocent Americans might be trampled in the rush to pursue terrorists. This is a perfectly valid concern, but from time to time someone might wonder a bit in public about how much the quest to ferret out terrorists and to protect ourselves is costing, as well as about how meager the results have been. In their valuable recent book. Less Safe, Less Free (2007), David Cole and Jules Lobel ably detail and critique the process. As their title implies, they suggest that we are less safe in part because the FBI and other agencies have failed in their well-funded quest to uncover the enemy within. There’s an alternative explanation, however: They have not failed, and we are not less safe; investigators haven’t found much of anything because there isn’t much of anything to find.

We can also expect continued efforts to reduce the country’s “vulnerability” despite at least three confounding realities; There is an essentially infinite number of potential terrorist targets; the probability that any one of those targets will be hit by a terrorist attack is essentially zero; and inventive terrorists, should they ever actually show up, are free to redirect their attention from a target that might enjoy a degree of protection to one of many that don’t. Nonetheless, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on this quixotic quest so far, and the process seems destined to continue or even accelerate, even though, as a senior economist at the Department of Homeland Security put it recently, “We really dont know a whole lot about the overall costs and benefits of homeland security.”

To be sure, terrorist attacks certainly remain possible, and there Is nothing wrong with trying to build resilience into our domestic security systems. But there are intelligent and reasonable ways to do this, ways that actually consider the risk vs. reward ratio of additional expenditures.

And then there are the other paths that we seem to have been pursuing: No cost is too high! No risk is too small! Since when does it take political courage to defend a rational approach to public policy against an hysterical one?

Perpetual Emotion

The experience with domestic Communism suggests another likely consequence of the War on Terror. Once a threat becomes internalized, concern can linger for decades even if there is no evidence to support it. The anxiety becomes self-perpetuating.

In the two decades following the Stouffer survey, news about domestic Communism declined until it essentially vanished all together. In the mid-1950s, there were hundreds of articles in the Readers’  Guide to Periodical Literature listed under the categories “Communism-U.S.” and “Communist Party-U.S.” In the mid-1970s, in stark contrast, there were scarcely any. This, of course, reflected the fact that domestic Communism wasn’t doing much of anything to garner attention. The Cold War continued but there were no dramatic court cases like the one concerning the State Department’s felonious document- transmitter, Alger Hiss, and his accuser Whittaker Chambers. There were no new atomic spy cases, like the ones involving Klaus Fuchs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which had so mesmerized the public in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In fact, despite huge anxieties about it at the time, there seem to have been no instances in which domestic Communists engaged in anything that could be considered espionage after 1950. Moreover, at no time did any domestic Communist ever commit anything that could be considered violence in support of the cause—this despite deep apprehensions at the time about that form of terrorism then dubbed “sabotage.” And as all significant terrorist violence within the United States since 2001 has taken place on television—most notably and persistently on Fox’s 24—the same was true about domestic Communist violence during the Cold War. FBI informant Herbert Philbrick’s 1952 confessional, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, “Communist”, Counterspy, at no point documents a single instance of  Communist violence or planned violence. Nonetheless, violence became a central focus when his story was transmuted into a popular television series that ran from 1953 to 1957 (reportedly one of Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorites).

However, even though the domestic Communist “menace” had pretty much settled into well-deserved oblivion by the mid-1970s, surveys repeating the Stouffer questions at the time found that fully 30 percent of the public still considered domestic Communists a great or very great danger to the country. Those who found them to be of no danger had inched up only to about 10 percent.

Some have argued that unjustified fears (or “hysteria”) about the Communist enemy within was created by the media, and some now say the same thing about apprehensions of the terrorist enemy within. But the fear of domestic Communism persisted long after the press had become thoroughly bored with the issue. This suggests that, while the media may exacerbate fears about perceived threats, they do not create them. That is, fears often have an independent source, and then take on a fictional life of their own.

A terrorist  on every overpass

A terrorist
on every overpass

Advertisements

Categories

%d bloggers like this: