The Sham "Terrorism Expert" Industry

Republished from salon.com
By Glenn Greenwald

Shortly prior to the start of the London Olympics, there was an outburst of hysteria over the failure to provide sufficient security against Terrorism, but as Harvard Professor Stephen Walt noted yesterday in Foreign Policy, this was all driven, as usual, by severe exaggerations of the threat: “Well, surprise, surprise. Not only was there no terrorist attack, the Games themselves came off rather well.” Walt then urges this lesson be learned:

[W]e continue to over-react to the “terrorist threat.” Here I recommend you read John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart’s The Terrorism Delusion: America’s Overwrought Response to September 11, in the latest issue of International Security. Mueller and Stewart analyze 50 cases of supposed “Islamic terrorist plots” against the United States, and show how virtually all of the perpetrators were (in their words) “incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish.” They quote former Glenn Carle, former deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats saying “we must see jihadists for the small, lethal, disjointed and miserable opponents that they are,” noting further that al Qaeda’s “capabilities are far inferior to its desires.”

In the next paragraph, Walt essentially makes clear why this lesson will not be learned: namely, because there are too many American interests vested in the perpetuation of this irrational fear:

Mueller and Stewart estimate that expenditures on domestic homeland security (i.e., not counting the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan) have increased by more than $1 trillion since 9/11, even though the annual risk of dying in a domestic terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Using conservative assumptions and conventional risk-assessment methodology, they estimate that for these expenditures to be cost-effective “they would have had to deter, prevent, foil or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year.” Finally, they worry that this exaggerated sense of danger has now been “internalized”: even when politicians and “terrorism experts” aren’t hyping the danger, the public still sees the threat as large and imminent.  As they conclude:

… Americans seems to have internalized their anxiety about terrorism, and politicians and policymakers have come to believe that they can defy it only at their own peril.  Concern about appearing to be soft on terrorism has replaced concern about seeming to be soft on communism, a phenomenon that lasted far longer than the dramatic that generated it … This extraordinarily exaggerated and essentially delusional response may prove to be perpetual.”

Which is another way of saying that you should be prepared to keep standing in those pleasant and efficient TSA lines for the rest of your life, and to keep paying for far-flung foreign interventions designed to “root out” those nasty jihadis.

Many of the benefits from keeping Terrorism fear levels high are obvious. Private corporations suck up massive amounts of Homeland Security cash as long as that fear persists, while government officials in the National Security and Surveillance State can claim unlimited powers, and operate with unlimited secrecy and no accountability. In sum, the private and public entities that shape government policy and drive political discourse profit far too much in numerous ways to allow rational considerations of the Terror threat.

* * * * *

But there’s a very similar and at least equally important (though far less discussed) constituency deeply vested in the perpetuation of this fear. It’s the sham industry Walt refers to, with appropriate scare quotes, as “terrorism experts,” who have built their careers on fear-mongering over Islamic Terrorism and can stay relevant only if that threat does.

These “terrorism experts” form an incredibly incestuous, mutually admiring little clique in and around Washington. They’re employed at think tanks, academic institutions, and media outlets. They can and do have mildly different political ideologies — some are more Republican, some are more Democratic — but, as usual for D.C. cliques, ostensible differences in political views are totally inconsequential when placed next to their common group identity and career interest: namely, sustaining the myth of the Grave Threat of Islamic Terror in order to justify their fear-based careers, the relevance of their circle, and their alleged “expertise.” Like all adolescent, insular cliques, they defend one another reflexively whenever a fellow member is attacked, closing ranks with astonishing speed and loyalty; they take substantive criticisms very personally as attacks on their “friends,” because a criticism of the genre and any member in good standing of this fiefdom is a threat to their collective interests.

On a more substantive level, any argument (such as Walt’s) that puts the Menace of Islamic Terror into its proper rational perspective — namely, that it pales in comparison to countless other threats (including Terrorism from non-Muslim individuals and states); that it is wildly exaggerated considering what is done in its name; and that it is sustained by ugly sentiments of Islamophobic bigotry — is one that must be harshly denounced. Such an argument not only threatens their relevance but also their central ideology: that Terror is an objective term that just happens almost always to mean Islamic Terror, but never American Terror.

Thus, Walt’s seemingly uncontroversial article was published for not even 24 hours when it was bitterly attacked for hours on Twitter this morning by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and it’s not hard to see why. Looking at Gartenstein-Ross’s reaction and what drives it sheds considerable light onto this sham “terrorism expert” industry.

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