Last month Ohio State University professor John Mueller published the book “Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.” The book expands upon his article in Foreign Affairs earlier this fall entitled “Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?” (which I reviewed in this post). Mueller has taken these arguments on the road recently, with an appearance on The Daily Show (Part 1, Part 2) in October and a policy event at the Cato Institute earlier this week.
The book makes three main arguments: (a) the terrorist threat is overstated today, (b) we’re exacerbating the threat by believing that it’s serious, and (c) there is now a “terrorism industry” that has a vested interest in maintaining public alarm.
These are all topics that are worthy of debate. You can read my earlier critique of (a) in this post on his Foreign Affairs piece. I partially agree partially with (b); it is imperative that our leaders avoid fearmongering, and that we take steps to make our society more resilient to avoid adverse secondary effects from disruption. And I think (c) uses a cheap epithet to make a blanket ad hominem criticism of anyone who believes that the terrorist threat is serious and consequential.
But unfortunately, Mueller undermines the basis for this debate by using false and misleading examples and statistics in numerous places in the book. For starters, take the opening paragraphs of his Introduction:
Upon discovering that Weeki Wachee Springs, his Florida roadside water park, had been included on the Department of Homeland Security’s list of over 80,000 potential terrorist targets, its marketing and promotion manager, John Athanason, turned reflective. “I can’t imagine bin Laden trying to blow up the mermaids,” he mused, “but with terrorists, who knows what they’re thinking. I don’t want to think like a terrorist, but what if the terrorists try to poison the water at Weeki Wachee Springs?”
Whatever his imaginings, however, he went on to report that his enterprise had quickly and creatively risen to the occasion – or seized the opportunity. They were working to get a chunk of the counterterrorism funds allocated to the region by the well-endowed, anxiety-provoking, ever-watchful Department of Homeland Security.
Which is the greater threat: terrorism, or our reaction against it? The Weeki Wachee experience illustrates the problem.
This sounds terrible, right? Another example of people being opportunistic and unjustly trying to grab that homeland security cash?
Not really. Unlike John Mueller, I wrote earlier this week to John Athanason, the manager of Weeki Wachee who is quoted in the passage above. This was the first that he had heard about his inclusion in this book. Athanason quickly wrote back to me and clarified the story (emphasis his):
You don’t see anywhere in the press about the park getting money for the “terrorism threat”, because the attraction was never intended to get any money.
In the state of Florida, each and every county had one request given to them by Homeland Security. Within your county, where would the most likely target occur in the event of a terrorist attack? Within Hernando County, our attraction was listed by our local authorities because we have a venue that attracts a large number of people at any given time. We did not pursue any money, nor did we ever apply for any money. All communication went directly to the local authorities to see what supplies they would need to assist them in any crisis, if one were to happen. We have never received any amount of money from Homeland Security.
The reality is the exact opposite of what Mueller reports in his book. The actions of Athanason and the Florida officials were appropriate across the board. I’m surprised that Mueller or someone from Simon & Schuster didn’t double-check this story, especially given the fact that it kicks off the book, and is mentioned repeatedly later in the book and in his remarks as the paragon of homeland security waste. This is just plain shoddy.
And so it goes throughout the book and in his public remarks. For example:
- The end of my earlier blog post mentions one such statistical miscalculation, in his comparison of bathtub deaths to deaths by acts of terrorism.
- He miscalculates aviation security spending on page 31 of the book, suggesting that TSA spends $4 billion on airline passenger screening, another $4.7 billion on “zapping checked baggage”, and another half-billion on air marshals. That adds up to $9.2 billion, but the actual entire TSA budget in FY2007 is $6.4 billion – he’s clearly double-counting somehow.
- In his remarks at Cato on Wednesday, he noted that federal law enforcement prosecutions have suffered because of attention to terrorism – a statement that this chart seems to contradict.
- He suggested in those same remarks that zero people have been killed by acts of terrorism within the United States since 9/11 – an untrue statement, and one that is disrespectful to the families of the victims of the anthrax attacks.
- Also in those remarks, he dismissed the relevance of the UK aviation plot to the U.S. aviation system because it was “on a different continent.” Does he not realize that the plotters were intending to fly to the United States? And that our aviation system is inherently global in scope?
I could go on, but you get the point. This book is wrong in its key points and misleading in its details. It paints a falsely benign picture of the terrorism threat – a viewpoint which could lull us into a dangerous sense of complacency were it to be increasingly accepted. We need to overcome our fears, live resolutely, and build a culture of preparedness and resilience into our societies, but we should not for a minute become complacent about the real and persistent threats that we face.