Secular Right | Reality & Reason



The ever-renewing terror threat

A Congressional hearing last week on terror threats facing the U.S. was covered by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which told the identical story:  the U.S. is at serious danger from domestic, homegrown terrorists.  Left out of the coverage entirely was the more newsworthy statement during the hearing by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center that Al Qaeda is no longer capable of carrying out a 9/11-style attack on U.S. soil.   The omission of this fact and the emphasis instead on the alleged domestic terror threat is a classic example of terror porn, which works to maintain a never-diminishing level of paranoia about Islamic terrorism.  Every time I have asked a neocon friend if we ever get to ratchet down our evaluation of the terror risk as years go by without a major incident, the answer comes back: No.  There are many interests contributing to this insistence, among which are neocon geopolitical concerns as well as massive economic and institutional pressures.  Though thousands more Americans are killed and injured each year through garden-variety criminal violence than Islamic terrorism on American soil,  we now have an entire bloated federal agency dedicated to combating the alleged terrorist threat, pushing reams of paper by the hour in the effort to look crucial.  To date, no major federal agency has ever been dismantled, so there is no reason to think that the Department of Homeland Security will be, either.  But we still need to continue verbally justifying its existence.  Thus the whack-a-mole nature of the terror threat and the always scary rhetoric around it. 

“In some ways, the threat today may be at its most heightened state since the attacks nearly 10 years ago,” Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, told lawmakers.  

Really?  Why does that statement feel overdetermined to me.  Have we ever heard an official say:  “The threat is diminishing” or “The threat just isn’t as great as we thought it was.”

Last year, there was a spate of predictions echoing throughout the neocon press chamber about imminent biological threats.  Anyone remember them?  Like all such predictions over the last decade, none have panned out, yet their proponents will never be called on their abysmal record of accuracy.


  • MarkE · February 14, 2011 at 4:52 am

    You make some telling points. I’ve got a little doubt, however. As time passes, as potentially dangerous technologies advance and become more widely accessible, does not the threat of significant terror attacks inevitably increase? Is it not the case that, over time, fewer people with less resources can do more harm?

  • John · February 14, 2011 at 5:22 am

    A lot of the reason why we haven’t been attacked (besides luck–the underwear bomber’s bomb just didn’t go off) is precisely that the terrorist threat has been taken seriously. The reason why we weren’t invaded by the USSR is not that the USSR wasn’t a threat, it was because most people took the threat seriously and didn’t let it happen. All it takes is one suitcase nuke for all the precautions to have been worth it.

  • Daniel Hough · February 14, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Even these comments follow suit, the question is do we want to live in a constant state of fear? In the end, the threat is still there, but more people by far are killed by auto accidents, gun accidents, and/or homicide. In this age of budget strain, can we really justify the expense? Check out Bruce Schneier’s comments on Security Theater. E.G. do we really need to be doling out federal dollars to increase police patrols on the Oregon coastline? Lastly, the only real solution comes from Lincoln: “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend” I would add, that unless you can obliterate him, it becomes the only way…

  • Brian · February 14, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    I never comment on here but I just want to mention that I really appreciated this article. I wish more on the right echoed this sentiment.

  • Charlie · February 14, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    I agree with John and MarkE. It is impossible to quantify the damage from terrorist events that did not happen. It is also impossible to know with any kind of certainty how many terrorist events have been and are currently being prevented by DHS. You seem to be implying that because terrorist events are not occuring DHS should be dismantled. Is it not at least remotely possible that the very reason terrorist attacks have not occured is because DHS has been doing its job? Your logic escapes me. You will get no argument from me, however, that DHS is a bloated and inefficient beaurocracy that should be streamlined and operated better. I would also agree that officials seem likely to use self-serving rhetoric to facilitate the perceptions of the LEVEL of danger. That hardly means that the danger does not exist or that it should not be taken seriously.

  • Clark · February 14, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    I’m really sympathetic to this view although I think the real problem is some of the overreaction that people seem unwilling to back away from. Airport scanners being only one example. An other being the Patriot Act which really has little oversight. I’m sympathetic to some of the aspects of the Patriot Act were they to be used solely to seek after terrorists. However it seems their prime usage is often in the war on drugs, an other endless program with mission creep and lots and lots of abuses.

    While I have trouble with some aspects of the tea party, part of me really hopes they weigh in here.

  • rj · February 14, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    “To date, no major federal agency has ever been dismantled,”

    What about the Freedmen’s Bureau?

  • Sean · February 14, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    “To date, no major federal agency has ever been dismantled,”

    pace rj, what about the Works Progress Administration?

    I wonder if the belief that “big government only, ever gets bigger” is as sacrosanct on the right these days as “life begins at conception” or “more guns = less crime”? Ms. McDonald, you’re a veteran of saying the wrong thing in the echo chamber. Any thoughts?

  • mscommerce · February 15, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Old fable:

    A man sees his neighbour sprinkling popcorn carefully around his house. “Why are you doing that” the man asks the neighbour.

    “Popcorn is an excellent tiger repellent” replies the neighbour.

    “But there no tigers anywhere near here” objects the man.

    “See?” says the neighbour, “it works!”.

  • Phiwilli · February 15, 2011 at 5:14 am

    “Like all such predictions over the last decade, none have panned out, yet their proponents will never be called on their abysmal record of accuracy.” This is true – but why don’t you and other commentators actually lay out the abysmal record of accuracy? In detail, with names, dates, direct quotes, and data that contradicts the predictions, forecasts and projections of both government and private agencies and organizations. The MSM reports lots of current predictions, but rarely (if ever) reports on the track record of past predictions.



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