All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 2001

Overreacting to Terrorism

Federal Terrorism Policy Overreacts to a Small and Declining Threat

In politics, said Gustave Le Bon, things are less important than their names. His dictum applies with special force to the word “terrorism,” especially today. The impression is, of course, that something called terrorism has to be, almost by definition, terrifying. A sensible analysis needs to move away from this semantic trap and examine what the word “terrorism” refers to, namely, politically motivated violence.

Once we focus on the thing itself, we discover a wide gap between perception and reality. Policymakers believe that domestic terrorism represents a major threat to American society, and they have launched costly new programs to hold it in check. In actuality, as threats to civilization go, politically motivated violence has not been a large problem to begin with, and in recent years it has been diminishing markedly. According to the FBI’s tabulation, the number of incidents of domestic terrorism peaked in 1982 with 51. Since 1993, which had 12, the number of incidents has remained in the single digits.

This is not to say that terrorism is no problem. The most serious case on record, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killed 168 people. The typical terrorist incident is much less dramatic, however. For example, in 1998, the latest year for which the FBI report on domestic terrorism is available, there were five incidents: three bombings in Puerto Rico, one of which injured a police officer; a case of arson in Vail, Colorado, that caused no injuries; and a bombing of an abortion clinic in Alabama, which killed a security guard. In the same year, the United States saw 16,900 “ordinary” homicides.

It may be that terrorists haven’t actually caused much harm, but what about the hypothetical dangers of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction? Such an attack is always possible, of course, and the dangers call for prudent defenses by the respective authorities. But fears need to be tempered by the facts. Weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, and nuclear—have been available for over half a century, and there have been plenty of terrorists over the same time. The combination of the two has made for much profitable fiction, but very little real-world terrorist destruction. The worst case in this category was the 1995 poison gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Tokyo, which killed 12 people. This sect, it should be noted, had funds, expertise, and manpower that no other terrorist organization seems to have. Considering all the hurdles—technical, social, and motivational—a large-scale, successful terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction seems extremely remote.

Government officials ignore the data and analyses that reveal terrorism to be a minor and declining problem, however, because there’s too much political hay to be made by frightening the public with dire predictions. Lobbying for expanded counterterrorism programs in the late 1990s, top FBI officials predicted that with the coming of the millennium “home-grown terrorism is likely to erupt on a scale unprecedented in modern times.” It was another Y2K prediction that fizzled. There were no domestic terrorist incidents around the turn of the year, and, as it happens, none for the entire year 2000.

Nevertheless, scaremongering works. Counterterrorism appropriations have been boosted to $10 billion, with dozens of federal agencies dreaming up programs in order to share in the largess. We now have 18 regional task forces and 200 disaster-response teams ready for action. The FBI has tripled—to 1,400—the number of agents assigned to counterterrorism investigations and hostage rescue.

Guarding Miss America

Given the small scale of the problem, this personnel is bound to be shunted into make-work activities. A Senate committee recently scolded the FBI for assigning expensive counterterrorism forces to provide “security” for public spectacles like the Miss America pageant, but the senators missed the point. There isn’t enough real terrorism to keep all these people busy. Furthermore, there are 800,000 law-enforcement personnel in state and local police forces prepared to respond to acts of violence like bombings and arson. Trying to horn in on this action, federal agents are often an intrusion and a distraction.

Excessive efforts also lead to abuses. Counterterrorism teams get tired of training and waiting for something to happen. As one team leader—pressuring the FBI deputy director for a mission—put it, “We need jobs.” While understandable in terms of maintaining morale, sending agents out just to keep them busy is an unsound foundation for police work. When there isn’t much actual crime to pursue, the danger is that overstaffed agencies will be tempted to foster it by engaging in entrapment or harassment—that is, violations of civil liberties.

We saw an example of this provocative surveillance at the recent trial of Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The FBI sent seven undercover agents masquerading as credentialed press photographers to snap pictures of bystanders. Other FBI agents set up TV cameras outside the courthouse to videotape everyone in the area. This massive surveillance didn’t catch any terrorists, but it certainly helped confirm the beliefs held by paranoid fringe groups, namely, that the federal government is a totalitarian Gestapo that can only be overthrown by violence.

Federal policy on terrorism seems to be another example of the famous law of unintended consequences. In overreacting to a small and declining terrorist threat, the government may well be exacerbating the problem.