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What You Should(n't) Be Afraid Of

(In honor of, in no particular order, The Rally to Bring Back Fear, Halloween and “War is War”, we’re discussing fear and national security.)

Every American will die. Scared? You should be, we’re in a fight for our lives.

In the Spring issue of the Journal for International Security Affairs, Mary Habeck writes about a threat to our freedom, terrorism. She tells us that “our enemies in Islam view [the current fight] as a life-or-death struggle--a total war for victory or death.” These evil men are, “intent on carrying out a war of annihilation” against the US. Even worse, American politicians don’t get it, “the contrast between this view [Al Qaeda and total annihilation] and the U.S. desire to fight a limited conflict characterized by legal constraints and law enforcement methods could not be more striking.”

Mary Habeck isn’t the only academic, politician or pundit frightening America. Former Vice President Cheney said it right here. So did his daughter Liz Cheney in this article. William Safire, writing in the New York Times, collected four of these opinions in this piece. In a speech before the American Enterprise Institute, New Gingrich calls radical Islam a “threat to our survival”. Right before him, his wife said that we are in “even more danger than [we were] in 2001”. And in the season premiere of Intelligence Squared, an NPR Oxford-style debate show, two debaters claim that we are in a war for survival.

In other words, the threat of terrorism, by radical, extremist, Takfiri Muslims, is a threat to our existence. And this should scare you.

It would terrify me, except for one inconvenient truth: terrorism is not an existential threat.

America can choose to view the struggle with al Qaeda as criminal problem--as opposed to an existential problem--because realistically it is. Al Qaeda might only have a hundred followers, maybe up to a thousand; the US alone fields a military of 2.4 million people. Al Qaeda is trying to get a nuclear weapon; we have thousands. They live in caves; America spans a continent. Al Qaeda struggles to survive in one of the harshest climates in the world; the US has bases on every continent and in dozens of countries. They get meager support from Saudi billionaires; we have the world’s largest economy. Do I need to go on?

So Mary Habeck makes the point that, “our enemies in Islam view it as “a life-or-death struggle--a total war for victory or death.” So what? They can believe whatever they want to believe, that doesn’t make it true. Mike Singletary can think the Forty-Niners are a playoff team, but I’m not going to pre-order tickets. Say Djibouti declared war on the US, would we even acknowledge them? We can choose to view terrorism as a non-existential problem because we have the power and will to do so.

Fortunately, rational voices do exist to temper the fear. The Cato Institute posted this piece about terrorism. Foreign Policy did an article titled, “Think Again: Homeland Security”. And Foreign Affairs published a cost-benefit analysis on terrorism that went so far as to call terrorism “hardly existential”. Even the state department is getting in on the act. Apparently, Americans traveling abroad are much more likely to die of traffic accidents then they are of terrorism.

I stumbled on the idea of fear and our existential crisis as I researched my “war is war” series. I consider this post a caveat to it. "War-is-war"-iors and anti-ROE critics phrase our current fights as an existential crisis because that would let us use our violent tools more. There are two issues with this. First, more violence won’t stop terrorism. Second, it isn’t true. Strong rhetoric about Al Qaeda and the end of America is designed to do one thing, sow fear. That’s exactly what Al Qaeda wants.

nine comments

A joke I heard in Europe, from a Slovenia about the Croatians:

Croatia decides it wants to fight America, so it declares war on America. Nothing happens. A second time, Croatia sends a missile over. Nothing happens. Finally, Croatia sends a bomb over. Nothing happens. The Croatian president calls George W. Bush and asks, “Why haven’t you done anything? Don’t you know Croatia has declared war on America?”

George Bush says, “What’s Croatia?”

Along the same line of thought though Eric, how many people our age knew where Afghanistan was on a map prior to the 9/11 attacks compared to how many knew where it was after.

Your truth Michael, I completely agree with.

I know I didn’t, but I blame CUSD’s lack of a geography class in the curriculum.

My undergrad got a 500 million dollar donation to start a “terrorism studies” program. It also cut funding to its foreign languages…Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French remain…not so much Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, Armenian, Polish, and other such awesome ones.

Existential threats pay the bills. I don’t mean that as a “CAN’T YOU SEE THE CONSPIRACY COME ON SHEEPLE” sort of way, I mean it as, nobody ever got paid to say nothing’s gonna happen.

@ AJK – Totally agree with last point. I’d add, no one ever got elected on the “everything’s A-OK” platform either.

@ Matty P
Do you really think Afghanistan is that well known? It’s still thought of as the Middle East by think tanks. You still hear people talk about how Afghans speak Arabic.

I think it’s pretty much the opposite. THEY are an existential threat to US, but there’s no serious discussion of what/who THEY are except as a threat. It’s very tough to get serious study done on Central Asia because some wacky funhouse version of it exists in minds, not the real thing.

…and don’t even get me started on the concept of terrorism…

AJK I still think terrorism is an existential threat, but you keyed in on that it relates to money. Politicians want money to fight terrorism because terrorism experts (who study it all the time and are immersed in it) go on tv to say how big a threat it is. All those people, tv, politicians, terrorism experts make money off terrorism. Terrorism—and fear—pay the bills. Ergo that is why the Intel Community has tripled in size since 9/11 and is larger than the economies of many third world nations.

I should write a post on this.

Hey big Mike,

I agree that we shouldn’t be scared of terrorism, as that fear plays right into their hand and makes them even more powerful. However, the more I read on the subject, to include what you’ve cited from Mary Habeck have me a little worried. It’s not so much the all out violent war, but the subversive techniques that I worry most about. There are plenty of Iraqi and Afghani’s that I’ve gotten along with but I believe that Islam is opposite of traditional American and western values. What I’m saying might be a bit “conspiracy theorist” but it’s worth looking into. Here’s something from Daniel Pipes:


Worth checking out, you can send me hate mail later.


“Rational voices” like those in the Clinton administration turned down the offer to capture bin Laden because they weren’t sure they could make a “law enforcement” case against him stick. They also passed on the chance to kill him for a similar reason.

This isn’t Kojack this is religious fanaticism.