Terror threat overblown, says expert

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI think tank correspondent  |  Aug. 10, 2002 at 12:24 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- The response of U.S. policymakers to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is based upon an overestimate of the threat of terrorism, and ignores the lessons that can be gained from an interdisciplinary approach to the problem, according to some think tank experts who are analyzing the issue.

"I basically think we are really overreacting to this in a fairly large way," said George Mason University economist Roger Congleton. "I think it would be useful for the press and the government to be reminded that the risks are not as gigantic as we seem to have been encouraged to believe over the last year."

In an essay entitled "Terrorism, Interest-Group Politics, and Public Policy: Curtailing Criminal Modes of Political Speech," in the summer edition of the Independent Institute's Independent Review, Congleton argues that policymakers should be taking a closer look at just how great a risk is posed by terrorist activities, as well as how much effort and money should be committed to address that threat, versus the other risks faced by society.

He also notes that much can be learned by comparing terrorist groups with non-violent political action groups. Congleton believes that many anti-terrorism policies are effective, just like similar policies aimed at limiting legal forms of political action.

But critics of Congleton's quantitative approach to antiterrorism policy argue that although a multi-disciplinary view is required to address the thicket of policy concerns raised by terrorist threats, a qualitative review is a much better means for developing an effective policy response.

Congleton says that the risks of dying in more ordinary crimes or accidents -- being run over by a car, killed in the traffic accident while driving, or even being murdered -- are much higher than those of being killed in a terrorist act.

"All of these risks are historically vastly larger than the risks we face from terrorists," he told UPI. "The right thing to do is to seek perspective and then to think about the costs associated with policy."

He noted that about 15,000 people were murdered last year in the United States, and that the 10-year national average for murders is around 20,000 people per year, compared to the 2,800 who died in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

In 2001, he says, the risk of death from terrorism was less than one-fourth that of being murdered, and far smaller than the risk of being involved in a fatal car accident.

Despite this, he says, the $20 billion allocated last September in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for fiscal 2002, earmarked for increased spending on antiterrorism activities, represents about 20 percent of the funds used annually for highway safety, and one-third of the money used to provide daily police protection in the United States. This is spending is unnecessary, given the risk of terrorism, he says.

Congleton says the drama of the Sept. 11 attacks makes the overreaction understandable but that the statistical reality of the terror threat should be the key to allocating resources.

"When you have 3,000 people killed at once it is a very shocking and trying event, but that many people were killed in highway accidents in September 2001," said Congleton. "This is no less shocking for the people who lost loved ones."

But Mark Burgess, a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, argues that a qualitative examination of policy, not a quantitative one, is necessary to ensure an effective terror policy.

"I feel this sort of quantitative approach to terrorist incidents doesn't really take into consideration the true nature of terrorism," said Burgess. "It is one thing to say that maybe a person is more at risk of being run down by a bus than they are of being killed by a terrorist, but that is neither here nor there."

John Parachini, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., agreed that Congleton's approach of managing risk is important and should be part of the "portfolio of ideas" used to evaluate terrorism policy.

"One of the problems we have, particularly in this country, is assessing the risk of terrorism," Parachini told UPI. "We tend to exaggerate the actual impact because of the unknown nature of it. "

He noted that the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- has long been urging the use of risk management as a means of maintaining budgetary discipline and ensuring effective policy decisions.

"At the moment we might be spending big, but we are not necessarily spending smart," he said.

Parachini says although Congleton's type of approach helps to clarify ideas and organize them in a useful way, relying only on a historical analysis to drive terrorism policy fails to show the entire picture and does not provide insurance against an increase in the threat.

In addition, he says it is unclear whether the actions of the al Qaida terrorist organization represent a deviation from the historical trend in terrorism.

"What we don't know is that we may be in a moment that is a historical disjuncture," said Parachini. "We only know what we see looking in the rearview mirror."

Burgess believes it is important to understand that al Qaida does not act in the same way as more traditional terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army. They do not have a steadfast political agenda or the specific goals that result in the more easily described patterns of action of some other groups.

"If you think of terrorism as being asymmetrical warfare, al Qaida is asymmetrical terrorism," said Burgess.

Parachini agrees, noting that reducing our responsiveness to terrorism, based on a quantitative conclusion such as the historical likelihood of attack, holds problems because it is so difficult to predict al Qaida's motivations and therefore predict its probable next actions.

"When you look at that situation of (Islamic) terrorism, you don't see a simply one-dimensional political decision, " said Parachini. "It is a combination of factors that motivate them."

He noted that Islamic terrorists often attack primarily to create fear, as did both Osama Bin Laden and Ramsey Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, have said.

Parachini says that while we know that some of the motives driving the actions of Islamic terrorists are religious and political, along with a desire for revenge these terrorist attacks are also driven by the egos of the group and its leaders, so they can show terrorists can play on the same global stage as a super power like the United States.

Parachini even compared their actions to those of arsonists who are irresistibly drawn -- by a uncontrollable psychological obsession or yearning -- to watch the fires they start.

"The mass killer, particularly in using explosives, is drawn by a similar thirst," he said.

Parachini believes that the White House's declaration of war against the terrorists can lead to policy abuses.

"I think that as a tool, war can justify a lot of activities, but there needs to be a recognition that this isn't a war like World War II, World War I or even Vietnam," he said. "It is a 'war,' in quotes, in the same sense that we have a war on crime or drugs. You can't ever reduce the risk to zero, that is impossible."

Congleton believes that the declaration of war may lead the government to overstep societal boundaries with unwarranted "drastic new domestic policies," given the potential threat.

"However, given the risks that we currently face and have faced for decades, discouraging criminal forms of political expression can be -- and should -- be accomplished within our existing Constitutional framework," he writes.

Despite his disagreement about the value of qualitative analysis like Congleton's, Burgess does believe a multi-disciplinary approach is important to understanding terrorists and crafting an appropriate response to their actions.

"In terms of how we see the perpetrators, I feel we are not seeking to get as textured an understanding of them as possible," he said.

Burgess noted that the same could be said about the threats of war made against Iraq by the administration of President George W. Bush. He says that although Iraq is a nation-state and the White House is responding with policy designed with this in mind, Saddam Hussein acts more like a traditional tribal leader than the leader of a nation.

This lack of understanding of Saddam's cultural basis shows that the analysis that underpins terror policy requires the kind of understanding that can only be gained by anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists, working hand in hand with the political and military strategists who dominate such policy matters, he said.

A prime example of the dangers of not fully understanding the nature of the terrorist threat, says Burgess, is President Bush's early statement characterizing the U.S. fight against al Qaida as a crusade. This undercut the validity of the American position by evoking an image equating it with the Christian Crusades against the Islamic world during the Middle Ages, and only gave Islamic terrorists more fuel for their cause.

"The President's declaration of a 'crusade' against bin Laden just feeds into bin Laden's world view and I don't want to do that," said Burgess. "I want to reduce him to the indiscriminate killer that he is."

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