Friday, January 04, 2008

Is Terrorism the Most Important Issue?

Some people argue that the war on terrorism is the most important issue facing the country. Thus they believe that un-conservative positions on other issues should be overlooked as long as a candidate has the "right" position on this issue.

Certainly, terrorism is a serious threat. But there are many threats. Knowing what policies to enact, how to expend resources, and what candidates to select requires evaluating how big the threats are.

How big a threat is terrorism? Since 9/11, there haven't been any major terrorist attacks in America. There have been a few isolated shootings. Including 9/11, the average number of deaths in domestic terrorist attacks per year during the Bush administration is about 420.

If we wish to examine foreign terrorist attacks on Americans, we must include the casualties in Iraq, which raises the average to 970 deaths per year. These deaths could have been avoided by not invading Iraq. (Of course, the costs of not invading are unknown.)

Is the lack of domestic terrorist attacks since 9/11 because of Bush administration success in counter-terrorism? To some extent. In this insightful article, Don Devine of the American Conservative Union lists thwarted terrorist plots since 9/11. While some were serious, others were little more than fantasies in the minds of foolish jihadists. As Devine puts it,
What is most obvious, however, is that these mostly are the “fools.” The report itself identifies only two convictions it considers “significant” and even Moussaoui and Reid almost asked to be caught and, of course, the former was recognized too late to prevent 9/11. A few others mentioned were serious threats but most were amateur sympathizers who were easily entrapped by FBI agents, were publicly obvious in collecting information or only gave material support to others. None of these “others” were in the midst of a real terror operation. The most serious case—not yet settled--consisted of American ex-convicts converted to Islam in prison aiming to kill “infidels” by blowing up synagogues and incidentally military bases that was more domestic and racial than Islamic. The more recent example of the six mostly Albanian American Muslims who were accused of plotting terrorism at Ft. Dix, New Jersey actually makes the point. Not only did they not have any firm plans but Dix is not a critical military target and they delivered a “jihadist video” to be developed by their local Circuit City, without which stupidity they would not have been apprehended! These guys were clowns, not terrorists.

The obvious conclusion why the U.S. has not had another 9/11 is that either the FBI cannot find the serious terrorists after five years—but then why have they not committed mayhem?—or, more likely, there are none to be found. Surely Al Qaeda itself is destroyed as an international logistics or even training operation. All it can do is produce videos and distribute them, mostly through public media, which could be harassed into being less cooperative. It only survives in remote mountains protected by the locals or where there is existing opposition and turmoil as in Iraq and Afghanistan. As FBI Director Robert Mueller told reporters recently, “We have seen an increase in the number of self-radicalized groups that…are nor organized by overseas groups.” Few of these have the means or will to carry out serious operations. Several of the plots taken to court actually were developed under the supervision of an undercover FBI agent and it is not clear they would have gone so far by themselves. There is no James Bond, 007-like evil Specter terrorist organization masterminding American terror operations.
The question can be further studied by examining deaths by terrorism during the Clinton administration, which did practically nothing to fight terrorists. During the years 1993-2000, approximately 200 Americans died in terrorist attacks, or 430 if you include the crash of TWA 800. This implies an yearly average of 25, or 54 with TWA 800.

This may not be a fair estimate, since most of the planning for 9/11 occurred during the Clinton administration. For the years 1993-2001, the yearly average is about 380.

In any case, terrorism simply isn't a major cause of death in America. It's not even close. Perhaps one in ten thousand American deaths are from terrorism.

Now, the number of deaths isn't a perfect measure of the level of risk, but it's the best we've got.

There are bigger threats. Big government kills far more people. Several studies have shown that fuel economy regulations kill 1000-2000 people per year by forcing people into smaller, less safe cars. The Food and Drug Administration holding up approval of a prescription drug can kill thousands. Gun control laws can lead to hundreds of avoidable murders. One estimate shows that illegal aliens kill 4000 Americans every year.

These are just a few examples. The cumulative effect of three trillion dollars of government spending and one trillion dollars of government regulations is bound to be huge. Government wastes money, making people poorer, and hence less safe. There's a reason why equally powerful earthquakes kills thousands in the third world and a handful in America.

While we certainly need to fight terrorists, we shouldn't do so by surrendering to big government. As Devine puts it,
What we must not do is to be fooled that there is some enormous peril to U.S. survival that overwhelms every other American value. That is why Rudy Giuliani is leading for the Republican nomination—rampant fear. Since when did conservatives become so frightened over a threat that is so manageable with a bit of common sense? American good sense will prevail in the end but that could inadvertently lead to a President Hillary first (by Giuliani provoking a social conservative third party, for example). In the meantime, as President Bush said immediately after 9/11 if we let the terrorists change our ways, they will have won. The White House’s own report shows the means to defeat the terrorists and to preserve our freedoms at the same time by winning the real not the trivial terrorism wars.

1 comment:

Dan Roth said...

I would argue that terrorism is fairly low on the list of issues. We have bigger issues facing America where, if not taken care of, will lead to the fall of America from the inside. We have issues with morality in this country. Our economy is fine now, but in danger. We're willing to settle on mediocre energy solutions. We've got a huge population of illegal immigrants. The list goes on. Fighting terrorism is important. But we've got bigger fish to fry in this country.