by David A. Bell
It's a pity that John Mueller's book Overblown isn't getting more attention. Its provocative--and certainly debatable--thesis is very simple: The threat to the United States from Islamic terrorism has been exaggerated, and may be close to non-existent. There is little evidence that Islamic terrorists have the capacity (as opposed to the desire) to carry out further attacks on the scale of 9/11 on U.S. soil, let alone anything more destructive. Anxieties about chemical, biological, and radiological weapons are particularly unjustified. There is little evidence that terrorists have access to such weapons, and in any case, they almost certainly could not use them in such a way as to kill large numbers of Americans. Nuclear weapons pose a much greater threat, but the difficulties involved in procuring and delivering them are far greater than most observers recognize. Many of Mueller's arguments have been made before, notably by Gregg Easterbrook in TNR, but Mueller puts them together into a cogent, polemical package. He quotes endless "expert" predictions that terrorists would "definitely" strike the U.S. again in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. He reminds us that even in the worst possible case--which is itself almost entirely unlikely--the terrorists do not pose anything like a threat to the existence of the United States, in the way the Soviet Union once did. And he concludes that our overreaction to 9/11 has done the U.S. far more harm than the terrorists themselves.
I'm no expert on terrorism, and would not presume to say whether Mueller's argument is ultimately sustainable. But the debate does seem worth having. For one thing, at the present time it is clearly in the interest of almost everyone to maximize the threat that terrorism poses. It is in the interest of the administration, which can reap a political dividend, and is also desperate to cover its collective rear end, should another attack actually transpire. It is in the interest of what Mueller calls the "terrorism industry" of consultants, contractors and security companies. It is in the interest of the media, which thrives on fear. And it is in the interest of the terrorists themselves, whose reputation is thereby inflated, allowing them to recruit and raise money. Mueller does not dispute that there is an intense weight of hatred for America in much of the Muslim world. But how much does this hatred translate into an actual capacity to wreak harm?
Unfortunately, a great deal about Mueller's book is frustrating, and some of it is patently absurd. In particular, he places his argument about 9/11 in the context of a potted history of America since 1941 that sounds (unintentionally, I think) like the worst sort of Chomskyan rant. Before we overreacted hysterically to 9/11, he asserts, we overreacted hysterically to Soviet Communism, and to Soviet client states. And before that, we even overreacted to Pearl Harbor! Instead of responding to the Japanese attack with full-scale war, we should have tried containment! This is not exactly an argument that is going to get much support. It suggests that its author has little sense of social psychology and less of history. Indeed, by Mueller's exalted standards, nearly every country in human history has been in the permanent grip of paranoid hysteria. This section of the book comes close to discrediting the whole project. But the rest of it is still worth reading. Might we actually be safer than we think? Is this something we can contemplate?