The Book Club

Is There a Threat-Industry Complex?

Dear Gideon,

Pleased to meet you, too. And a nice job summarizing the three volumes. It is quite amazing how we seem to be in another round of terrorism books, the last lot being in the ‘80s. I’d like to add a gripe. I wish Hoffman hadn’t chosen the title Inside Terrorism. It’s like calling a book on the fall of communism in the early ‘90s Inside the Kremlin. Written by a Westerner, you knew it couldn’t be from the inner sanctum. Hoffman, by the way, strangely omits to mention Osama bin Laden, America’s terrorist bête noire. Also, Stern’s title, The Ultimate Terrorists, panders to the panic button. Market-driven forces, such as book salesmen, headline writers and sensation-seeking editors, should be told to take a walk on the topic of terrorism. Back in the ‘80s, terrorism was written about by social scientists as “sub-state violence”; only with the emergence of state-sponsored acts of violence did they call it terrorism. Since then we’ve had “Grand Terrorism,” “Mega-Terrorism,” “Catastrophic Terrorism,” and yes, “Post-Modern Terrorism.” Thank heavens for sensible titles like Philip Heymann’s Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society.

So, what do we learn from these books about the reality of the threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction, or to use the military acronym, WMD? All three, plus the book you correctly added–America’s Achilles’ Heel, by Falkenrath et al.–conclude it’s real; you use the term conventionalwisdom for their basic agreement–a term that always puts me on edge. Who’s to say conventional wisdom is wise?

Acts of terrorism of all kinds, Stern tells us, are up alarmingly. In the 1970s, there were 8,114 terrorist incidents around the world, causing 4,798 deaths. In the ‘80s, there was a fourfold jump. And for 1990-96, there were already 27,087, causing 51,797 deaths. But what does this mean? Are the incidents up, or have the criteria changed? Stern’s footnote says these figures come from Pinkerton Risks International, “a consulting firm in Arlington,” of whom, I’m sure, the average reader has never heard. Might this firm have an interest in upping the ante, perhaps? The footnote doesn’t say.

Falkenrath (I hope Slate editors will let us include him) says the threat is “often underestimated” and “that the probability of such an attack is higher than commonly assumed–and growing.” Hoffman says, in his carefully worded conclusion, that access to WMD materials and the rise of religious terrorism “could portend an even bloodier and more destructive era of violence ahead than any we have seen before.” But how convinced are they of their own assertions? All three authors recognize the difficulties terrorists have in actually making a nuclear device (even with bomb-grade uranium from Russia on the black market) or in dispersing anthrax spores in an aerosol. It is also true, surely, that Western societies, while vulnerable to such acts through neglect (not enough vaccines, not enough detection devices, not enough training of local response teams) are not totally unprepared. Such attacks would be unlikely to result in the collapse of public order–which would be the aim of such a terrorist attack, wouldn’t it?

Is it possible that the present heightened concern is merely cyclical? In the ‘80s, we worried about terrorists stealing a nuclear device, such as a portable nuclear land mine–yes, there were such things. But concern faded as fears were unrealized.

Today’s worries were stimulated by, among other things, the March 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, the Oklahoma City bombing a month later (using a conventional explosive, by the way), and, of course, Saddam Hussein.

Heymann’s lawyerly caution leads him to seek a “common sense” response; to put out fires “with water rather than gasoline.” While acknowledging the threat, he reminds us the statistics can be read another way. “The number of attacks on U.S. individuals abroad has fallen to less than a third of what it was in 1986, with 66 attacks in 1994, a year in which there were no domestic terrorist incidents in the United States.”

Like the other authors, Heymann follows the efforts to define terrorism, as we define murder, robbery, and rape. It’s hard. Hoffman, for example, laboriously looks up the word in the dictionary, and also finds different government agencies with different concepts. That’s not surprising, says Heymann, because “the term is the basis of U.S. statutes that allocate money and authority for dealing with certain problems.” In other words, an act of terrorism brings in the FBI and the intelligence agencies, vying again for government funds. How much of the alarm is feeding the beached threat-experts of the Cold War? How much, do you think, in the rush to find a seamless conspiracy of terrorists suddenly wanting to use weapons of mass destruction, is the threat industry acting like a new military-industrial complex of which we should beware?