The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself

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The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself

As rage coursed through India after the Mumbai terrorist bombings, Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration’s Secretary of State, flew to India and cautioned the Indian government on avoiding a knee jerk and counterproductive response. She warned the Indians that “any response needs to be judged by its effectiveness in prevention and also by not creating other unintended consequences or difficulties.” This lecture is laughable after the Bush administration’s over-the-top reaction to 9/11 was to declare a massive global war on terror; create a fictional and cartoonish “axis of evil”; and invade and occupy two Muslim countries—all of which actually fueled Islamist terrorism worldwide. (Given these same facts, the U.S. criticism of Russia’s temporary invasion of one-third of Georgia in response to that nation’s initiation of hostilities in South Ossetia, which killed Russian soldiers, was equally drenched in hypocrisy.)

And the disproportionate U.S. response to terrorism continues. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently warned that the United States will face its biggest threats not from aggressive nation-states, but from guerrillas and terrorists in “failed states.” To combat these threats, the Department of Defense has just raised such “irregular warfare” to equal status with conventional warfare. It apparently just dawned on the Pentagon’s leadership that most of the wars fought by the United States during the post-World War II period have been such low level conflicts.

Michael Vickers, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for special operations and low intensity warfare, is now talking of a worldwide network made up of U.S. and friendly forces to conduct “steady state” counterterrorism operations, in order “to create a persistent, ubiquitous presence against our adversaries…” In other words, conducting perpetual war for perpetual peace. The nation’s founders, leery of the costs in blood and treasure of the constant warfare that European kings inflicted on their people, would pass out at this notion—especially when the average American’s chances of ever being killed by an international terrorist attack are statistically less than being struck by lightning.

However, it has not yet occurred to the Pentagon (probably because such a realization would not be in the military’s interest) or the U.S. public that messing around militarily in failed states, especially Muslim ones, is what generates the anti-U.S. hatred that leads terrorists to attack U.S. targets. Yet the people of other countries seem aware that military activities abroad may make their homeland less secure. For example, in Spain after the massive train bombing on March 11, 2004, the Joe Maria Aznar government, which had been one of the few European governments that avidly supported and helped with Bush’s invasion of Iraq, had to lie to its people that the bombing was likely the work of Basque separatists, when it had evidence that the Islamists were behind it. Why? Because if the Spanish people found out that Islamists had perpetrated the attack, the Spanish government knew that the public would correctly see that Spanish foreign policy had endangered the Spanish homeland. Thus, the Spanish government would be put at risk. Of course, the truth eventually came out anyway, the deceitful Spanish government was justifiably thrown out of office, and Spanish forces were withdrawn from Iraq.

In contrast to such lucid thinking, politicians and the media in the United States deliberately stoke excessive fears of terrorism so that they can get government funding for their pork projects or attract more viewers, listeners, or readers. For example, a congressional mandated commission headed by two former senators recently reached the alarmist conclusion that “it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.” How the panel could come up with such a specific estimate of an event that has an essentially unknowable probability (only two major WMD attacks by terrorist groups or individuals have occurred in history—the gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 and the anthrax attacks in the U.S. in 2001) should raise suspicions. In addition, the commission concluded that an attack with a biological agent was more probable than one with a nuclear weapon and that the U.S. government thus should increase regulation of the 400 U.S. research facilities and 15,000 people working with such organisms. No mention was made that even a biological attack is difficult to carry out successfully (the Japanese terrorist group that perpetrated the pathetically ineffective chemical attack on the subway, which should have been easier to carry out than a biological attack, had boat loads of money, had hired top notch scientists, and had failed at committing biological terrorism) or that threat of biological terrorism has been made worse in the wake of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks by multiplying the number of facilities working on antidotes and vaccines for biological attacks. After all, the anthrax attacks, again killing only a few people, originated from anthrax stored at a U.S. government facility and used by scientists with special expertise in biological weapons agents.

Thus, irrational fear breeds irrational and hypocritical responses. Hopefully, India will respond to the Mumbai attacks by adopting the more rational Spanish model and not the hysterical U.S. model.

Ivan Eland is a Fellow at ISPU and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute.

This article was originally published by the Independent Institute.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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