Saturday, September 30, 2006


JOHN TIENEY, NY TIMES - For five years, we've been telling Americans
that Sept. 11 changed everything. . . We reported intelligence estimates
of thousands of Al Qaeda terrorists and supporters in "sleeper cells" in
America. In May 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that Al
Qaeda's preparations for an attack were 90 percent complete. We braced
for acts of terrorism forecast to occur during the political
conventions, the presidential campaign, on Election Day, after Election
Day. Through yellow and orange alerts, we kept in mind the Department of
Homeland Security's warning: "Today's terrorists can strike at any
place, at any time and with virtually any weapon."

So what's keeping them? That's the question raised by Mueller, a
political scientist at Ohio State University, in the current issue of
Foreign Affairs.

"Why," he asks, "have they not been sniping at people in shopping
centers, collapsing tunnels, poisoning the food supply, cutting
electrical lines, derailing trains, blowing up oil pipelines, causing
massive traffic jams, or exploiting the countless other vulnerabilities
that, according to security experts, could so easily be exploited?". . .

Mueller's conclusion is that there just aren't that many terrorists out
there with the zeal and the competence to attack the United States. In
his forthcoming book, "Overblown," he argues that the risk of terrorism
didn't increase after Sept. 11 - if anything, it declined because of a
backlash against Al Qaeda, making it a smaller and less capable threat
than before. But the terrorism industry has been too busy hyping Sept.
11 and several other attacks to notice.

It has found a new audience for old dangers. For more than half a
century, experts have warned that terrorists could destroy a city with a
weapon of mass destruction. They still might, but their failure so far
suggests it isn't easy to do, and it didn't suddenly become easier on
Sept. 11. . .

There are plenty of fighters willing to use terrorist tactics locally
during civil wars and insurrections, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya
or Kashmir. But it's harder to recruit competent warriors to fight
abroad, and harder for them to operate in orderly countries where the
citizenry and the authorities both want to stop them. . .

As it is, he figures, the odds of an American being killed by
international terrorism are about one in 80,000. And even if there were
attacks on the scale of Sept. 11 every three months for the next five
years, the odds for any individual dying would be one in 5,000.

Compared with past threats - like Communist sociopaths with nuclear
arsenals - Al Qaeda's terrorists are a minor problem. They certainly
don't justify the hyperbolic warnings that America's "existence" or "way
of life"is in jeopardy, or that America must transform the Middle East
in order to survive.

There undoubtedly will be more terrorist attacks, either from Al Qaeda
or others, just as there were before 2001. Terrorists might strike
Monday. There will always be homicidal zealots like Mohamed Atta or
Timothy McVeigh, and some of them will succeed, terribly. But this is
not a new era. The terrorist threat is still small. It's the terrorism
industry that got big.


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