March 19, 2007
The Bush administration, desperate for justifications to buy a little more time with the American people for its failed adventure in Iraq, markets the idea that if the United States rapidly withdraws from Iraq, the “terrorists will follow us home.” A closer examination of this assertion—like the rest of the administration’s fear mongering—demonstrates it is baseless.
U.S. State Department statistics show that historically, North America has had the lowest incidence of terrorism worldwide. The American public’s shocked reaction to the catastrophic 9/11 attacks was due, in part, to the infrequency of past terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. After the unique events of 9/11, terrorism in North America has resumed its historical modest trajectory.
North America has been a relative safe haven from terrorism for several reasons. The United States is far away from the world’s centers of conflict. Although the United States is roundly hated in the world because of its unneeded meddling in faraway conflicts, most anti–U.S. terrorism is perpetrated on U.S. embassies and military facilities overseas—not on the American homeland. Terrorists, like conventional armies, have trouble operating in the United States because it is so far from their normal bases of operations. In addition, the United States does not have many militant foreign populations that could provide sanctuary and support for imported terrorists of the same ilk.
According to Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, the lifetime probability that international terrorists will kill any one American is a miniscule one in 80,000—about the same as the same person being killed by a comet. Of course, the chances are even lower if you are an American living in America (instead of overseas) and not residing in New York, Washington, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
But the average American, especially after the luck that the hijackers benefited from on 9/11, should not be blamed for overestimating the danger of terrorism. The U.S. security agencies, to get more funds and authority for their bureaucracies, have constantly used color-coded warnings and other techniques of fear mongering to keep the anxiety generated by 9/11 alive in the public consciousness. The U.S. media, getting high ratings from sensational reporting on terrorism, has been a willing accomplice to the administration effort.
The “Islamo-fascist” scare has worked. The already massive U.S. defense budget has increased by 50% and the budget of the recently created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has doubled. The DHS budget request for fiscal year 2008 is $46.5 billion, much of which goes to fight terrorism. Spending all that money to combat a threat that is as rare as a catastrophic comet hitting the United States makes little sense. If NASA were able to use the same scare tactics as DHS, perhaps the space agency could persuade a reluctant Congress to give it the paltry $1 billion (by comparison) for its equally absurd Spaceguard Survey program, which tracks asteroids and comets that have an equal probability of killing Americans as terrorists do.
If the probability of Americans in the United States being killed by international terrorists remains low even after 9/11, would it increase if U.S. forces withdraw rapidly from Iraq and chaos there turns into bloody mayhem? Most likely not. According to U.S. counterterrorism experts, about 90% of al Qaeda fighters in Iraq are Iraqis, not foreign fighters. These experts believe that these fighters emphasize local concerns and would have their hands full fighting the more numerous Shi’a when U.S. forces—one of their current major targets—withdraw.
Instead of being anxious about such Bush administration canards, the American people should worry about things that have a greater chance of killing them—for example, the average American’s lifetime chances of being killed in an auto accident are one in 100. Instead of focusing on potential terrorism in the homeland emanating from a post–U.S. Iraq, Americans who want to have the greatest probability of living longer lives should eat right, exercise, and wear their seat belts, and avoid smoking and excess worry (especially about jihadists following U.S. soldiers home from Iraq).
Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
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