Insights · September 25th, 2006
Here is one way we are blowing the future. By pursuing a phony “war on terrorism.” Just a few thoughts on this. If, as President Bush claims, the world is in a decisive war for civilization, then why have so few resources been devoted to the battle? Undermanned armed forces. No national sacrifice. No particular direction. By these and other signs, one can know the “war” is make believe, designed for domestic consumption for the purpose of maintaining political power and not taken all that seriously even by those mouthing the slogans.
Second, terrorism cannot be dealt with militarily anyway. Instead, dealing with terror, which can never be fully eradicated, is a matter of intelligence, police work, and international cooperation, coupled with international diplomacy and political/economic development. These are the tactics that have been proven to work in the past, while the military responses have been generally counter productive.
Third, the whole terror threat is greatly, even wildly exaggerated. This is explained persuasively by John Mueller in Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct. 2006. I am often asked what are the great threats to humanity, and how does terror fit in? My answer. Terrorism is not an “existential” threat, by which I mean a threat that could wipe out humanity, destroy civilizations, or bring down advanced and powerful nations. There are such threats, namely a killer asteroid, or out of control climate change, and the very small possibility of a global plague. But not terrorism. Terror is a background threat, and ought to be treated as such. Not ignored, even vigorously pursued, but treated at its true level. More people drown in bathtubs than are killed by terrorists. An individual is more likely to be killed by an asteroid, in fact, than by a terrorist.
And global terrorists are generally disconnected, local, and focused on private, immediate and historical grievences. The idea that there is a vast global terrorist conspirancy is much more fantasy and wishful thinking sold for PR purposes than reality.
James Fallows makes a similar point in his recent in-depth article in Atlantic Monthly, arguing that Al Queda, such as it was, has been effectively defeated. It is time to “declare victory” he says, and to move on to more targeted responses to the kind of threats that actually exist. Really worth reading.
The recently leaked Intelligence Estimate which argues that the war in Iraq has indeed increased the terrorist threat does cause one to wonder if the threat will eventually lead to an actual event. It certainly confirms that this ill-conceived war has backfired.
Until we get this right, and there are signs that this re-thinking is underway, we’ll miss the real issues shaping and threatening the future, and the longer it will be before really important possibilities are exolored and developed. And it will be our reactions to terror that threaten us, more than terror itself.