Kathryn, could it be that you’re mistaken to luxuriate in anger over that hole in the New York skyline? Are you perhaps focusing too much on the deaths of Barbara Olson and the passengers of Flight 93? Is the very idea of devoting the entire website today to the events of 9/11 perhaps fostering an exaggerated sense of the threat we face? That’s not my view, but it just may be the view of John Mueller, author of, “Is There Still a Terrorist Threat,” the lead article in the current issue of Foreign Affiairs.
Here’s a choice quote from Mueller: “Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two hundredths of a percent (or one in 5,000).” Here’s another: “…the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year.”
Some of this is plain stupid. The notion that the United States could easily weather a 9/11 scale of attack every three months for the next five years is nonsense. Imagine the signature skyscrapers of our twenty largest cities going down one by one, the airline industry brought to a halt, etc. Mueller’s notion that al Qaeda is just not trying very hard to hit the U.S. is unconvincing. After all, al Qaeda just tried to kill thousands of airline passengers headed for the U.S. (Mueller surely finished his piece before news of the airliner plot broke). That reflects al Qaeda’s continued desire to harm us directly, as well as their sense that it’s still easier to hit us from abroad. All of which points to our successful anti-terrorism efforts, rather than a lack of al Qaeda malevolence, as the key reason for our success at stopping terrorism. (Even John Judis, who claims that the airliner plot was not imminent, says that the bomber plotters may have succeeded this fall or sometime early next year had they been left unmolested.)
Although dramatically misguided, Mueller does raise one legitimate point. It is a matter of great interest and significance that America has not seen a raft of attacks modeled on the Washington sniper. Cheap, low-level terrorism by someone willing to sacrifice his life could fairly easily bring chaos to our society, while being very difficult to stop. It’s tough believe that al Qaeda couldn’t arrange a series of such attacks if it really wanted to. This is a mystery to be solved, but especially given the London airliner plot, it does not show that al Qaeda has given up its terror plans.
Mueller is getting lots of publicity. His piece is not only the lead article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, it is also the subject of a headlined symposium on the Foreign Affairs website with James Fallows, Jessica Stern, Fawaz Gerges, and Paul Pillar commenting. John Tierney plugged Mueller in a NYT Op Ed on Saturday. And Mueller is coming out with a book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. So, Kathryn, maybe you should just forget this whole 9/11 thing and refocus the site on domestic policy.