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Fear Incorporated: Terrorism as Thorazine

Compared to nearly a decade and a half of war, extrajudicial killing, and occupations, we know that conventional intelligence and police work has been extraordinarily effective at preventing terrorist attacks here in the US, and it has done so at a relatively low cost. (Image: Stock / Public domain)

In 2003 we invaded Iraq with no real reason being offered.  Hundreds of thousands protested.

We’re in the process of doing it again, and again, no credible reasons are being offered, but no one is taking to the streets.  We are as amiable sheep, heading to slaughter.

Back in 2003, Bush, Cheney and the neocons said it was part of the “war on terror.”  But there was no link between al Qaeda and Iraq; were no WMDs; and the strategy of “fighten’ over there so’s we wouldn’t have to fight them here” never made a lick of sense.  The strategy of invade and occupy is costing us $4.4 trillion, resulting in 6,617 US troop deaths and counting, millions of civilian casualties, and causing an exponential increase in the number of terrorists.

Let’s repeat that – our current policies of intervening in civil and religious conflicts in the name of defeating terrorism – has created more terrorists and increased terrorism on a global level.

Meanwhile, we know that conventional intelligence and police work has been extraordinarily effective at preventing terrorist attacks here in the US, and it has done so at a relatively low cost.

Let’s do a quick review of the facts:

  • the people we’re “helping” don't want us there,
  • the actions we’re taking to reduce terrorism are increasing it, 
  • the threats we’re confronting are grossly overstated,
  • the costs of our counterproductive strategy – even if it weren’t failing -- are grotesquely out of proportion with the actual threats we face, and
  • there’s a low cost alternative that does work,

You’d think, given these facts, we’d reexamine our policies. 

But of course, you’d be wrong.  You’d also think people would be taking to the streets to at least demand a justification for pursuing this idiocy. But again, you’d be wrong.

The question is, why the quiescence?

To understand why, we need to take a look at popular culture.  Picture the scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where McMurphy and friends voluntarily line up for their anti-psychotics.  It’s become iconic – Silver Linings Playbook, Shelter Island, A Beautiful Mind … The point is, the meds are being given as much to make the patients tractable, as to treat them.  

Our society uses fear in the same way – with one important difference.  In the movies and in real medical applications, meds are given to the mentally ill to help them cope with reality.  In our culture, the mentally challenged dispense fear to keep the healthy from seeing reality.

Doubt that? Let’s examine the justifications for our psychotic foreign policy.

 We’re regularly treated to the usual hyperbolic bloviations about ISIS/ISIL posing an “existential threat,” to the US.  But this doesn’t even pass the straight face test.  An existential threat is one in which our very existence is at risk. But ISIS is composed of about 20 thousand rag tag troops equipped with scrounged weapons, no aircraft, and no ships, and they are located 7,000 miles away. How these landlocked troops pose any threat to the US has never been explained.

Perhaps they are all really good swimmers. 

But the notion of terrorism as an “existential threat” or a threat beyond anything we've seen is widely disseminated by our whole society.  

Listen to the news and it’s all ISIL/ISIS all the time. 

Back in Washington, Congress, Pundits, Academia, and the Think Tanks are all a-flutter about the latest twists and turns of “The War on Terror …” Here again, until very recently, it was all ISIS, all the time. 

Interestingly, only the fear inducing threat of an Ebola outbreak here in the US has managed to intrude a bit on the ISIS feeding frenzy in the media. 

The message is clear:  Be afraid.  Very afraid.

But in reality, it turns out, terrorism and terrorists are pretty lame. In a columnin Scientific American, entitled The Five Myths of Terrorism – Including that it Works, Michael Shermer completely destroys the notion that terrorism resembles our vision of it.  The article is subtitled, Why Terrorism Doesn’t Work.

As Shermer points out, terrorists are mostly a collection of poorly-trained incompetents, not brilliant strategists.  The shoebomber couldn’t light his shoe; the underwear bomber only managed to burn his genitals; The Times Square bomber succeed only in burning up his SUV; the Boston Marathon bombers had no escape plan and one of them failed at a suicide attempt. Nor are they a purely evil global organization with a monolithic world-view.  Their motives are varied and in many cases, they were recruited into terrorism by the very wars of occupation we engaged in to defeat terrorism. 

Actual studies of terrorism – as opposed to hysterical fear-mongering for fun and profit – clearly show it hasn’t worked very well. This from Shermer’s article:

In an analysis of 457 terrorist campaigns since 1968, George Mason University political scientist Audrey Cronin found that not one extremist group conquered a state and that a full 94 percent failed to gain even one of their strategic goals. Her 2009 book is entitled How Terrorism Ends (Princeton University Press). It ends swiftly (groups survive eight years on average) and badly (the death of its leaders).

Moreover, since 911, terrorists have killed just 33 people in America – which, as Shermer notes, is “statistically insignificant.” 

And the track record shows that conventional law enforcement and intelligence efforts have successfully thwarted terrorist attacks here in the US – and at a very low cost compared to the “invade and occupy” strategy.

So there you have it – currently we spend more on battling terrorism than on any other discretionary budget item, sacrifice long-cherished freedoms, incur hundreds of thousands of casualties and use tactics that actually increase the number of terrorists. 

We should, of course, be vigilant.  But the kind of fear-induced, society-altering, militaristic response we’re buying into?  A little crazy, to say the least.

Meanwhile, there is a real existential threat facing us:  Climate Change.  This unfolding tragedy is already killing 300,000 people a year, and is expected to kill as many as 100 million by 2030.  It is also destroying habitats and eliminating as many as half of all species alive today.  By mid-century, it may create as many as 200 million refugees, according to UN estimates – and these displaced people will be a giant pool for recruiting terrorists.  

But unlike fears conjured up from “out there,” responding to climate change doesn’t distract – it calls on us to come together and face reality, not run from it. 

This means oligarchs and plutocrats can’t use it to give us our daily dose of distraction so it is useless to them – actually, it is worse than useless, it calls on us to address the whole stacked economic deck that keeps the uber-rich on top.

And so we take our daily dose of fear and march mindlessly into battle while real threats are swept under the rug.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, both available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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