“Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.
“None of these beliefs are based in fact. … While terrorism is not vanquished, in a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are still aimed across the continents, terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way.”
–Larry C. Johnson, “The Declining Terrorist Threat,” New York Times, July 10, 2001. Johnson, a former CIA officer, was deputy director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism from 1989 to 1993. A more detailed version of this argument appears here.
“On television, you can see that the twin towers were destroyed; up close, you can see they were pulverized. … [T]he number of people believed to be missing in the attack on the World Trade Center was revised from 5,422 to 6,333.”
–Michael Grunwald, “Up Close At Ground Zero, Desolation and Dust,” Washington Post, Sept. 21.
Commentary: It is, to be sure, a little bit cheap (and slightly at odds with the usual parameters of this feature) to criticize someone for making an erroneous prediction, particularly after a tragedy. Chatterbox is especially reluctant to tag Johnson because Johnson’s op-ed was argued forcefully, backed up meticulously with factual data, and bravely at odds with conventional wisdom at the time of its publication. Add in that Johnson now makes his living as a consultant to corporations about terrorism, and therefore had everything to gain by exaggerating the dangers terrorism poses, and the guy practically looks like a hero. Chatterbox, who two decades ago was an editor for the New York Times op-ed page, would have published Johnson’s piece had he still been an editor there this past July. In his capacity at Slate, Chatterbox might well have written up Johnson’s prediction, and perhaps even endorsed it.
But boy, is he glad he didn’t! Johnson’s analysis, we now see, was bold, persuasive, and 100 percent wrong. Sadly, a mistake this embarrassing cannot be ignored. As a fellow skeptic, Chatterbox in all sincerity wishes Johnson better luck next time.
Got a whopper? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To be considered, an entry must be an unambiguously false statement paired with an unambiguous refutation, and both must be derived from some appropriately reliable public source. Preference will be given to newspapers and other documents that Chatterbox can link to online.
Sept. 13, 2001: Yasser Arafat
Sept. 7, 2001: Tommy Thompson
Aug. 30, 2001: HHS spokesman Bill Pierce
Aug. 23, 2001: Variety Editor Peter Bart
Aug. 17, 2001: Tom Daschle
Aug 10, 2001: Robert Mueller
Aug. 3, 2001: Barbara Olson
July 27, 2001: Jeffrey Archer
July 20, 2001: George W. Bush
July 13, 2001: George W. Bush
July 6, 2001: Sumner Redstone
June 29, 2001: David Brock
June 22, 2001: Edmund Morris
June 15, 2001: George W. Bush
June 8, 2001: Nepali Prince Regent (subsequently, King) Gyanendra
June 1, 2001: Mary McGrory
May 25, 2001: Ari Fleischer
May 18, 2001: York, Pa., Mayor Charles Robertson
May 11, 2001: Ted Olson
May 4, 2001: Rear Admiral Craig Quigley
April 27, 2001: Ben Affleck
April 20, 2001: South Carolina state legislator Chip Limehouse
April 13, 2001: Gray Davis
April 6, 2001: Sumner Redstone
March 30, 2001: Spencer Abraham
March 23, 2001: George W. Bush, Rep. Jennifer Dunn, and/or the Treasury Department
March 16, 2001: George W. Bush
March 9, 2001: Russ Freyman, spokesman, National Association of Manufacturers
March 2, 2001: Paul O’Neill
Feb. 23, 2001: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton
Feb. 16, 2001: Oscar spokesman John Pavlik
Feb. 9, 2001: Lynne Cheney
Feb. 2, 2001: Bobby Thomson
Jan. 26, 2001: Denise Rich