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Threat, what threat?

This week, a British judge ruled Abu Qatada, once described as “Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe”, should be released into Britain, rather than deported. Despite the fact he is essentially under house arrest and currently has no access to a computer or phone, the decision has caused a political storm and brought terrorism back into the headlines.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, said: “This guy should have been deported years ago, but if we can get that agreement with Jordan, he can be on his way. We are doing everything we can to get him out of the country.”

Labour MP, Geraint Davies, said: “In three months’ time, just before the Olympics, a truly dangerous man will be roaming the streets of London with his mobile phone and internet access. How can you justify putting the public’s right to life at risk? It’s disgusting.”

Political scientist, John Mueller, would probably tell him to calm down.
In 2006, five years after the atrocities of 9/11, he wrote a book, titled, “Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them”.

Mueller says that reactions to terrorism are a greater threat than terrorism itself. He says that the extent and destructiveness of international terrorism are limited and that the exaggeration of the threat and policy overreactions, impose severe costs on society.

The actual danger of dying from terrorism is about the same as being killed by lighting (based on statistics since the 1960s) and our reaction to this slim possibility has caused great harm to civil liberties, the economy and human lives.

Mueller says that the practical problems of using WMD (maybe a nuclear device at the Olympics), have been vastly underestimated. Looking at past threats (to America), like Pearl Harbor and Soviet communism, he sees a pattern of exaggeration and posturing. Since 9/11, there has been a “terrorism industry”, which has a vested interest in alarmism.

Overreacting to groups like al Qaeda, plays into their hands; a change in western lifestyle and a loss of liberty, is what they intended and, “the enemy, in fact, is us”. The long-term response to terrorism, should entail patient and methodical intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security.

Once fear of an internal enemy has been created, says Mueller, it can decline only very gradually and we tend, “to take a challenging episode as a harbinger”.
Despite the odd description of 9/11 as “challenging”, it is refreshing to read a pragmatic assessment of the threat posed by terrorism.

He says America overreacted to Cuba, Vietnam was an overreaction to indirect aggression and the US overreacted to the invasion of Afghanistan. Concerns about a nuclear apocalypse have waxed and waned, but not in proportion to the danger.

Mueller looks at a series of recent so-called threats, the “evils du jour”; Tito, Kim Il-sung, Castro, Nasser, Gaddafi, Khomeni, even Japan’s economic prowess and determines that each case turned out not to have been as dangerous as feared.

Most Americans, he says; “have a false sense of insecurity” and we should be expending our efforts on reducing harmful fears, prioritising policing, rather than going to war.

Mueller’s alternative policy to dealing with the threat of terrorism, is to place the emphasis on reasonable goals (complete security is impossible), policing, prevention, educating people to reduce their fears (difficult) and do things that demonstrably reduce fears.

Visitors to the 2012 Olympics should be comforted by the fact that the war on terrorism is going relatively well, mostly due to ordinary police work and definitely not because of the stoking of public fears. Mueller says: “Given the FBI’s inability to find a single true terrorist cell in the United States, after years of obsessive questing, it is not unreasonable to suspect that perhaps terrorists scarcely exist in the US.”

In 2005, the day after London had been awarded the 2012 Olympics, home-grown terrorists, set off four bombs on London transport, killing 52 people. The original budget for the Games was £2.4bn and this has risen to £9.3bn, with £553m allocated to security.

It would be hoped that Lord Coe, the London 2012 chairman, has read Overblown. He has said the capital will not become a “siege city” during the Games and that recent announcements over the deployment of troops and military hardware will be balanced by a sense of “proportionality”. Mueller would approve.

Nigel Phillips

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