Monday, February 19, 2007

There was an interesting review in the New York Times Book Review yesterday about a book entitled Overblown, by John Mueller. The book argues that the threat of terrorism has been overstated, and that likewise the response has been more about making money than about protecting Americans from real threats. Anatol Lieven is critical of his arguments, and thinks Mueller overlooks some burgeoning threats, like Europe's radicalized Muslims. But there is a chicken-egg aspect to his argument, as Lieven notes that Mueller admits that the lack of terrorist cells in the United States may be due to increased attention to the people we let into the country. I can see in the first chapter of the book that he compares the number of people dying from terrorism to people dying from more mundane - but nevertheless deadly -- activities. The problem is that without intervention from a variety of sources, the number of dead from terrorism would go up, whereas an awareness campaign probably won't do much to decrease the number of fatal hairdyers dropped into the bathtub every year. Furthermore, it is highly psychologized battle, unlike our battle with Katrina or other natural disasters; what we do to combat terrorists has direct effects on how, when, and where they attack.

You can read the first chapter of the book.
I haven't read this book (I'd like to!), but I can say right now that in order to overstate a problem you have to understand its real nature. And that in and of itself is an enormous task for governments all over the world -- to fully understand the level of threat coming from secretive organizations, cells, groups of people or individuals who would like to take those institutions off guard. It sounds cliched, but "better safe than sorry" is what we will hear an awful lot when we are talking about measures to protect people against new and misunderstood threats.

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