The Corner


The Wrong-Take Hall of Fame

Bill Maher (HBO/YouTube)

It’s easy to complain about Twitter, but sometimes it delivers a spectacular gem. The Pessimists Archive rediscovered this clip of Bill Maher in 2003, shortly after the SARS outbreak in Asia:

“New rule: Stop scaring us with diseases we will never get!” Maher declares to chuckles from the audience. “First it was SARS, then it was monkeypox, West Nile, and now Asian Bird Flu, which doesn’t scare me because I’m not a sparrow in Thailand. Mysterious Asian diseases just don’t come knocking at your door,” and then Maher makes a joke about the recent divorce of Neil Bush, the president’s brother.

Now, it’s understandable that at that time; Maher would shrug at Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome; in 2003, SARS hadn’t had much of an impact in the United States. When the outbreak ended, only 27 Americans caught it, and no American died from it. The peak of the outbreak was in the late winter and spring of 2003, when most Americans’ attention was focused upon the invasion of Iraq.

But Maher’s confident assertion that it was absurd to think that a serious Asian disease could come knocking at our door, belongs in the Wrong Take Hall of Fame, right next to Larry C. Johnson’s July 10, 2001 New York Times op-ed entitled, “The Declining Terrorist Threat,” which declared:

Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.

None of these beliefs are based in fact. While many crimes are committed against Americans abroad (as at home), politically inspired terrorism, as opposed to more ordinary criminality motivated by simple greed, is not as common as most people may think.

I hope for a world where facts, not fiction, determine our policy. While terrorism is not vanquished, in a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are still aimed across the continents, terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way.

Johnson is a former CIA officer and former deputy director of the U.S. State Department Office of Counterterrorism. In a 2000 interview, Johnson said of Osama bin Laden, “yes, he does not like Americans, he does not like the United States. If he had the wherewithal to kill Americans and attack U.S. targets, he would do so, but he doesn’t. He is not in the position, he’s not an army… He’d like to make our life miserable, but thank God, he’s been limited by his ability to do that, in part because his people are in jail, in part because he’s holed up in Afghanistan and no other country out there is willing to open its arms to him and say, ‘Come sit down and work with us.’”



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