How the National Security Complex Grows on Terrorism Fears
By Tom Engelhardt
Here's a scenario to chill you to the bone:
Without warning, the network -- a set of terrorist super cells -- struck in northern Germany and Germans began to fall by the hundreds, then thousands. As panic spread, hospitals were overwhelmed with the severely wounded. More than 20 of the victims died.
No one doubted that it was al-Qaeda, but where the terrorists had come from was unknown. Initially, German officials accused Spain of harboring them (and the Spanish economy promptly took a hit); then, confusingly, they retracted the charge. Alerts went off across Europe as fears spread. Russia closed its borders to the European Union, which its outraged leaders denounced as a "disproportionate" response. Even a small number of Americans visiting Germany ended up hospitalized.
In Washington, there was panic, though no evidence existed that the terrorists were specifically targeting Americans or that any of them had slipped into this country. Still, at a hastily called news conference, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano raised the new terror alert system for the first time from its always "elevated" status to "imminent" (that is, " a credible, specific, and impending threat"). Soon after, a Pentagon spokesman announced that the U.S. military had been placed on high alert across Europe.
Commentators on Fox News, quoting unnamed FBI sources, began warning that this might be the start of the "next 9/11" -- and that the Obama administration was unprepared for it. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a rare public appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, denounced the president for "heedlessly putting this country at risk from the terrorists." In Congress, members of both parties rallied behind calls for hundreds of millions of dollars of supplementary emergency funding for the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen airport safety. ("In such difficult economic times," said House Speaker John Boehner, "Congress will have to find cuts from non-military discretionary spending at least equal to these necessary supplementary funds.")
Finally, as the noise in the media echo chamber grew, President Obama called a prime-time news conference and addressed the rising sense of hysteria in Washington and the country, saying: "Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies will stop at nothing in their efforts to kill Americans. And we are determined not only to thwart those plans, but to disrupt, dismantle and defeat their networks once and for all." He then ordered a full review of U.S. security and intelligence capabilities and promised a series of "concrete steps to protect the American people: new screening and security for all flights, domestic and international;... more air marshals on flights; and deepening cooperation with international partners."
Terrorism Tops Shark Attacks
The first part of this scenario is, of course, a "terrorist" version of the still ongoing E. coli outbreak in Germany -- the discovery of an all-new antibiotic-resistant "super toxic variant" of the bacteria that has caused death and panic in Europe. Although al-Qaeda and E. coli do sound a bit alike, German officials initially (and evidently incorrectly) accused Spanish cucumbers, not terrorists in Spain or German bean sprouts, of causing the crisis. And the "disproportionate" Russian response was not to close its borders to the European Union, but to ban E.U. vegetables until the source of the outbreak is discovered.
Above all, the American over-reaction was pure fiction. In fact, scientists here have been urging calm and mid-level government officials have been issuing statements of reassurance on the safety of the country's food supply system. No one attacked the government for inaction; Cheney did not excoriate the president, nor did Napolitano raise the terror alert level, and Obama's statement, quoted above, was given on January 5, 2010, in the panicky wake of the "underwear bomber's" failed attempt to blow a hole in a Christmas day plane headed from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Ironically, non-super-toxic versions of E. coli now cause almost as much damage yearly in the U.S. as the recent super-toxic strain has in Europe. A child recently died in an outbreak in Tennessee. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have estimated that earlier in the decade about 60 Americans died annually from E. coli infections and ensuing complications, and another 2,000 were hospitalized. More recently, the figure for E. coli deaths has dropped to about 20 a year. For food-borne disease more generally, the CDC estimates that 48 million (or one of every six) Americans get sick yearly, 128,000 are hospitalized, and about 3,000 die.
By comparison, in the near decade since 9/11, while hundreds of Americans died from E. coli, and at least 30,000 from food-borne illnesses generally, only a handful of Americans, perhaps fewer than 20, have died from anything that might be considered a terror attack in this country, even if you include the assassination attempt against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the Piper Cherokee PA-28 that a disgruntled software engineer flew into a building containing an IRS office in Austin, Texas, killing himself and an IRS manager. ("Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well" went his final note.)
In other words, in terms of damage since 9/11, terror attacks have ranked above shark attacks but below just about anything else that could possibly be dangerous to Americans, including car crashes which have racked up between 33,800 and 43,500 deaths a year since 2001.
While E. coli deaths have dropped in recent years, no one expects them to get to zero, nor have the steps been taken that might bring us closer to the 100% safety mark. As Gardiner Harris of the New York Times wrote recently, "A law passed by Congress last year gave the Food and Drug Administration new powers to mandate that companies undertake preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of such outbreaks, and the law called for increased inspections to ensure compliance. The agency requested additional financing to implement the new law, including hiring more inspectors next year. Republicans in the House have instead proposed cutting the agency's budget."
Doctrines from One to 100
Here, then, is one of the strange, if less explored, phenomena of our post-9/11 American age: in only one area of life are Americans officially considered 100% scared, and so 100% in need of protection, and that's when it comes to terrorism.