There can be no doubt that the terrorist crime of 11 September 2001 generated deep fears among western, and especially American publics. Not only were civilian airliners turned into weapons of conspicuous destruction, but the subsequent anthrax scare drew attention to the dangers of chemical and biological warfare agents in the hands of non-state actors bent solely on devastation. The fear that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons ready to launch on a hair trigger evoked still deeper fears. The ideologies of al-Qaida militants, and more recently Isis, are so alien and demonic that people are deeply afraid that the worst may transpire.
Fortunately, those fears are massively disproportionate to the actual threats.
In fact, you are more likely as a US citizen to drown in your bathtub (a one in 800,000 chance) than die from terrorism (a one in 3.8 million chance). And even this may be an overestimate: in 2013 the Washington Post reported that, based on the previous five years, there was only a one in 20 million chance of dying in a terrorist attack: two times less likely than dying from a lightning strike.
Toddlers, using weapons found in their own homes, have killed more Americans than terrorists in recent years.
It is crucial to consider that the “war on terror” might have been a horrendous error. The attempt to impose a military solution on complicated political problems was simplified thinking with a false promise of total national safety. In turn, the militarisation of the response – as seen in the massive expansion of military deployments, arms spending, and the license to do anything in pursuit of national security – has in reality worsened the problem of armed violence in the world.
If we take the number of fatalities caused by terrorists, 2001 marks a clear spike, because of 11 September. But a single spike, however terrible, is not indicative of a statistical trend. Looking back, it seems that the counter-terror policies of the 1980s and 1990s, aimed at pressuring governments to end state sponsorship of terrorist organisations, was actually working, and 9/11 was an exceptional and tragic outlier.
One thing that happened in the aftermath of the trauma of 9/11 was “threat inflation”: political leaders and pundits inflated the perils that America was facing.
Threat inflation is remarkably easy to do.The difference between popular fears and realities is well known to politicians.
The security sector has a strong record of engaging in threat inflation.
During the early stages of the cold war, for example, American policymakers and military leaders loudly worried about first a “bomber gap” and then a “missile gap”, claiming that the USSR was massively outpacing US production of bombers and nuclear missiles. In 1959, US intelligence estimates suggested that the USSR would be in possession of between 1,000 and 1,500 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) compared to America’s paltry 100. In reality, by September 1961, the USSR had only four ICBMs at its disposal, “less than one half of one percent of the missiles expected by US intelligence”, as Stephen Van Evera points out. More recently, Saddam Hussein turned out not to possess weapons of mass destruction after all.
The practice extends, as retired Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel William Astore notes, to North Korean ballistic missiles, Iranian nuclear weapons production and increased Chinese military production. While all are real concerns, they “pale in comparison to the global reach and global power of the United States military …
All this breathless threat inflation keeps the money rolling (along with the caissons) into the military”.