You've Been Fooled
The Daily Reckoning PRESENTS: Since 9/11, urban legends pertaining to the War on Terror have taken our media by storm. In his latest book, Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror, Richard Miniter examines this new type of folklore…and today, we look at Myth #7: The Post September 11 World is More Dangerous for Americans…
YOU’VE BEEN FOOLED
“Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning . . .In a single instant [on September 11], we realized that this will be a decisive decade.”
– President George W. Bush, 2002
Presidents know the power of their words and usually filter them through layers of careful advisers and cautious bureaucrats before pouring them out into the public domain. Yet in his 2002 State of the Union address, before the Congress and the world, President Bush succumbed to a commonplace myth: Since the September 11 attacks, the world is more dangerous for Americans than ever before.
This legend, often dispensed in stronger doses, can be heard from both elected Republicans and Democrats as well from the pundits and the press. It may even be the unconscious assumption of many people.
But is it true? The fear is that the September 11 attacks, or in other variations, the Bush administration’s reaction to them, have made all of our lives riskier than ever before. At any moment, you could hear the hum of engines overhead or be rocked by blasts on the ground. One of America’s great writers summed up this sense of formless dread in a memorable way:
“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
“All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”
These words were written by E. B. White, in his book Here Is New York. What is interesting, now, about White’s words is that they first appeared in 1949. That simple fact – the date of White’s reflections – suggests two things: that this aura of shapeless anxiety is not new, but periodically descends on New York and the nation, and that it is possible that the world really was more dangerous in the past than it is now.
Indeed, the Cold War era was more perilous than today. With its thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at the homeland, the USSR had the capacity to destroy the U.S. many times over. Nuclear annihilation, lest we forget, haunted the Western world for almost fifty years. The Cold War was not the mythologized happy time of stable co-existence at all. At one point during the Cuban missile crisis, only one political officer stood between a Soviet submarine commander and his desire to launch a nuclear torpedo. The Cold War was a period of dangerous instability, with endless proxy wars, coups, insurgencies, revolutions, counter-revolutions, and state-sponsored terrorism. When Communism fell, most of these activities came to an end.
Nor was nuclear holocaust the only nightmare hanging over the free world. The Soviet Union was also a major manufacturer of chemical and biological weapons. Damocles, an ancient Greek courtier, once switched places with the king, Dionysius I. To demonstrate the peril he lived with every day, Dionysius hung a sword over Damocles’ head, suspended by a single strand of hair. During the Cold War, a figurative sword hung over the head of every human being on Earth. Al Qaeda, or any other terrorist group active today, simply does not have the same destructive power.
Communist forces were also responsible for provoking two wars with the United States, in Korea and Vietnam. Together, these two conflicts cost more than 70,000 Americans their lives and injured more than 400,000. Many of these injuries left soldiers or civilians permanently crippled or disfigured.
By contrast, al Qaeda has killed fewer than 4,000 Americans since 1992. And while the Soviets and their allies could field a mechanized army of millions, al Qaeda numbers in the thousands. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent research organization in London, estimates bin Laden’s total force at 18,000. Department of Defense estimates range as low as 3,000. “Today we have seen the enemy,” writes Russell Seitz, a former fellow of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, “and he has, at most, one division under arms.”
The Soviets deployed as many as six divisions near the Fulda Gap in East Germany alone. As Colin Powell writes in his biography, “As I took over V Corps, in 1986, four American divisions [including the U.S. VII Corps] and nineteen Soviet divisions still confronted each other over a border bristling with even deadlier weaponry.”
Across Asia and Africa, as the colonial empires of Britain, France, and other European powers retreated, millions more died in civil wars inspired by Communist guerrillas. When the false dawn of peace finally came, millions more suffered and died under the ruthless rule of dictators allied with either the Soviet Union or the United States. Have we forgotten China’s “Cultural Revolution,” when the Red Guards sent millions to die in faraway fields, sometimes for the “crime” of owning a pair of eyeglasses? They were but few of the seventy million murdered by order of Mao Tse-tung.
Or the some forty million worked to death in the chain of sub-Arctic Circle concentration camps known as the “gulag archipelago,” vast islands of misery set up on permafrost wastes? Let us not forget the millions who were murdered by Communist revolutionary Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia. Among the “political enemies” executed by machete were crying infants and illiterate peasants. I walked through one of the killing fields, outside of Phnom Penh, in 1999. Amid the open pits, one can see still bits of bone poking out between the blades of grass.
Even the risk of terrorism was higher in the end years of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and China provided an ideological justification, extensive small-arms and bomb-making training, and cascades of cash for terrorists around the world. From the Shining Path in South America to the Red Army Faction and Red Brigades in Europe, these self-described revolutionaries kidnapped, killed, and bombed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Only the fall of the Soviet Union brought an end to their reign of terror.
Even Near Eastern terror had its roots in Soviet strategy. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), founded in 1964 to oppose the 1948 creation of the state of Israel, received its doctrine, training, and weapons from the Soviets and their captive satellites. The PLO soon released a wave of assassinations, kidnappings, hijackings, and bombings that plague the Middle East to this day. Their allies, Black September, would murder American diplomats in Khartoum, Sudan, and Israeli athletes in Munich, Germany, in 1972. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union would lose control over its Arab terrorists, who increasingly embraced a radical Islamist ideology.
Other nations, including Iran, Iraq, and Syria, would take the Soviets’ place as terror sponsors – and it is the Russians, from Moscow to Chechnya, who are now bedeviled by the demons they created.
With the disappearance of the Soviet Union, many of the terror groups outside Arab lands have withered or turned to kidnapping and drug sales to survive. Communist terrorists in Europe and South America, which were known to target American executives, officers, and diplomats, have disappeared. Americans, especially in Germany, Italy, and Greece, are safer as a result.
But hasn’t the risk from terrorism risen in the wake of September 11? Not according to any valid statistical measure. One political scientist who is a recognized expert in analyzing risks from terrorist attacks is Todd Sandler, the Dockson Professor of International Relations and Economics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. By any measure, he is a distinguished scholar. Sandler has written or has contributed to nineteen books, published numerous peer-reviewed academic articles and newspaper op-eds, and won awards and grants from the National Science Foundation. Sandler is no pro-Bush shill. He sparked a controversy in 2004 by claiming that the Bush administration was substantially underestimating the deaths from terror attacks, apparently, he contends, for election-year reasons.
The State Department’s annual survey of world-wide terrorism showed 208 terrorism acts for the year 2003. Sandler, who maintains his own extensive database of global terrorist incidents, recorded 275 attacks – a 32 percent difference. Such a discrepancy between the official State Department figures and his own did not appear in previous years, leading Sandler to suspect the worst. “It would seem someone who is controlling the figures is acting more out of politics than recording statistics,” he told the press. He charged that the Bush administration was undercounting to leave the “false impression” that the U.S. is winning the War on Terror. (The State Department later updated its figures. The dispute did not turn on the number of al Qaeda incidents, which were essentially the same by both the State Department’s and Sandler’s reckoning.)
So it is significant that Sandler published data that challenges the widely held belief that the threat of terrorism has worsened since September 11, 2001. In Sandler’s paper, co-authored with Walter Enders, titled “After 9-11: Is it all different now?” he finds: “While there is no doubt that perceptions changed and deep-seated fears arose that fateful day, there has been no data-based analysis on how transnational terrorism (i.e. terrorism with international implications or genesis) differs, if at all, since 9-11.”
Sandler’s data reveals that the September 11 attacks were unprecedented and unusual, not part of a pattern. The almost 3,000 deaths on that September morning were “as great as all deaths from transnational terrorism from 1988-2000. Prior to 9-11, no terrorist incident, domestic or transnational, resulted in more than 500 casualties.”11 To date, no terrorist atrocity anywhere in the world has caused as much carnage as September
11. Indeed, terrorist incidents of all kinds “displayed no changes after 9-11. Incidents remained at their pre-9-11 levels.”
As surprising as it may seem, the number of terrorist attacks has declined since 1990 while the death toll per attack has climbed slightly. Twenty-nine percent of all terror strikes since 1968 occurred since 1990. But 46 percent of all deaths from terrorism have happened since 1990.
While casualty rates increased slightly in the 1990s, and remained steady in the years after the September 11 attacks, the risk of terrorrelated death is still low and is in line with pre-September 11 trends, according to Sandler. “Since 1968, there have been 14,440 international terrorist attacks, an average of 425 a year. Even including September
11, the average number of casualties [which includes both deaths and injuries] per incident was just 3.6, while the average number of deaths was below one.”
Why is terrorism more deadly since 1990? Several factors are at work. Terrorists as a whole have increasingly moved away from hostage-taking and hijacking plots, which are hard to execute and usually take few lives. This change is at least partly ideological. Communist terrorists hoped to drive public opinion, not alienate it through mayhem and slaughter. That is why these groups focused on hijackings and hostages. By 1990, many of these Communist groups began to disappear, while radical Islamic crews continued to rise. In 1980, religious international terror cadres accounted for only two of sixty-four active terror bands. By 1995, religious terrorist groups made up twenty-nine of fifty-eight terror outfits active world-wide. These Islamist radicals embraced a doctrine that allowed them to extinguish the lives of unbelievers (and even faithful Muslims) on religious grounds and on the firm belief that high death tolls would persuade Americans to withdraw from Muslim lands.
Their strategy may be sinister, but it is not irrational; it has proved successful in Lebanon and Somalia and it is not hard to find people in the Middle East who think that it will eventually succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the composition and ideology of terror groups mutated, the deadliness of these organizations changed too. But that change began in 1990, not 2001.
Sandler’s work is squarely in the center of research in this field and is backed by the independent findings of many other scholars. John Mueller, the Woody Hayes Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University, specializes in studying public opinion and risk. The author of an array of peer-reviewed articles and pieces for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, he has won fellowships from Guggenheim and grants from the National Science Foundation. In a short article in
Regulation magazine and an academic paper prepared for a conference at Harvard University, Mueller points out that the risk of perishing in a terror attack is quite small.
“Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of these terrorist attacks occurred inside the United States.”
And since September 11? “Although there have been many deadly terror incidents in the world since 2001, all (thus far, at least) have relied on conventional methods and have not remotely challenged September 11 quantitatively.” There have been no attacks inside the United States since 2001 and the many attacks outside have not yielded death tolls anywhere near the attacks on New York and Washington, or even the number of deaths following the 1988 bombing of an aircraft over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270.
The Madrid bombings, as horrific as they were, took some 200 lives. Mueller, citing the work of University of Michigan transportation researchers Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan, points out that there would have to be a September 11-style attack every month before terrorism killed as many Americans as car crashes do. Or to put it another way, the chance of an American dying on one nonstop airline flight is one in 13 million – the same level of risk that one suffers driving just 11.2 miles on a rural interstate highway.
So Michael Moore was quite right when he pointed out on CBS’s 60 Minutes program that “the chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small.”
But his interviewer, broadcaster Bob Simon, clearly understood public opinion when he rejoined: “But no one sees the world like that.”
The threat of terrorism should not be shrugged off, but actively fought. One reason that the United States and many of its allies have been free of terror since 2001 is that President Bush has prosecuted the War on Terror with vigor. Indeed, if the goal of terrorists is to terrify, then the best way to fight back is to refuse to be terrified.
Still, against all evidence, fear remains. Brendan Miniter, my brother and a staff columnist for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial-page website OpinionJournal.com, sums it up best in a 2002 column:
“The other night I realized Osama bin Laden had taken away the innocence of a perfectly good rainstorm. I was standing on the corner of Clinton and Joralemon streets, in a Brooklyn neighborhood directly across the East River from Ground Zero, watching commuters sense a change in the air. A downpour was coming. Everyone wanted to get home before getting wet.
“Lightning flashed across the sky. I waited for the thunder. The seconds ticked by. A man about my age crossed the street, looked at me and said: “Lightning?” His underlying question was obvious. It was a few days after the news broke of Jose Padilla’s arrest; dirty bombs and nuclear blasts were on everyone’s mind. Was that the flash that precedes a nuclear shockwave?
“Then the thunder cracked. The boom was loud. So loud that the man, barely done with his question, hit the ground.
“I really hate bin Laden. There are anywhere from 3,000 to a million reasons to hate that guy. And with each passing day, I seem to find a new one. The other day, I’m sure it was him, Osama held up my subway train. I had raced to catch that train, only to hear the conductor’s announcement: ‘All trains are being held in the stations due to smoky conditions at Park Place.’ The car fell silent. No one said it out loud, but everyone had to be wondering: Is this how we’ll first hear of a chemical or biological attack?
“I had boarded the subway at the same stop on Sept. 11, minutes after the towers were hit. The conductor that fateful morning made a similarly innocuous announcement: ‘Due to an emergency at the World Trade Center, this train will not be stopping at Park Place.’ Minutes earlier I was on the Brooklyn Promenade looking across to lower Manhattan when the second plane hit, so I already knew. But many that morning were on autopilot, including the conductor who drove the train into lower Manhattan. I wish he hadn’t, for I never would’ve gotten close to the burning towers, felt the heat and heard the roar of the flames.
So, on this recent morning, I couldn’t have been the only one wondering if the smoke up ahead was the beginning of another attack. We’re not on autopilot anymore; we’re on constant alert. The train continued on, through Park Place. Everything was fine.”
Of course, this reaction is human, perhaps all too human. Yet to the extent that we surrender to it against all reason, terror succeeds.
for The Daily Reckoning
January 10, 2006
Editor’s Note: Richard Miniter is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton’s Failures Unleashed Global Terror and Shadow War: The Untold Story of How America Is Winning the War on Terror. A veteran investigative journalist, he was a member of the award-winning Sunday Times (of London) investigative team.
The above essay has been adapted from his latest book, Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror. You can purchase your copy by clicking here:
The big news so far this year is the steep rise in the price of gold. The old yellow metal is telling us something. But most people are deaf to gold. They can’t hear it laughing.
Most people believe that gold is a “speculation.” They’ve heard that it pays no dividends. They’ve never heard of any “progress” or any quarterly earnings projections from gold. Gold never announces any fancy new technology. It never tells investors how fast it is growing or how many new customers it has.
Nor do people have any reason to think that the world’s financial system is in danger. “Hasn’t it always been this way?” they ask.
The answer is “no.” The present international financial system is an experiment. It has only existed since 1971, when the United States cut the umbilical cord between the dollar and gold. Before that, gold almost always stood behind the dollar, and other paper currencies. Why? You might just as well ask us “Why do fools fall in love?” or “Why is there air?”
If central bankers could create “money” simply by printing paper currency on a printing press, the world would soon be full of paper currency. And everywhere and always, the price of a thing varies with its availability. The more there is, the cheaper it is. Generally, as the volume of paper money increases, its unit price falls. Always has; always will.
This is not the first time central bankers have tried a system of purely faith-based currency. Every previous experiment ended in the predictable way: the bankers created more and more “money.” And as the quantity increased, the quality decreased. Eventually, the “money” was of such poor quality that people would no longer accept it. In recent history, the Argentine currency lost 90% of its value in a single year. In less-recent history, the German currency lost 999% of its value in a matter of weeks. Between the time a man ordered a beer and the time he finished it, the price might have risen two or three times.
“Money” comes in many forms and guises. In our wallet, we have paper notes that remind us of our travels. There are British pounds, of course. But we also have a few euros, a few hundred Argentine pesos, one half-torn 10-cordoba note from Nicaragua, and exactly two U.S. dollars.
We also have a collection of credit cards, each one of which has a certain purchasing power. And if we check our accounts, we find that we have “dollars” or “euros” in various forms and various amounts. At least, we believe we have dollars and euros. We have had them for many years, but we’ve never actually seen them. As far as we know, they exist in no other form than the electronic information that arrives to our computer terminal.
Still, we are confident that we could convert them into goods or services at any time we needed to. We could even sell our farm in America. According to friends, its value has more than doubled in the last six years. That is, we could get twice as many dollars for it today as we would have gotten in 1999. Where did this extra purchasing power come from, we wonder?
The trouble is, depending upon time and circumstance, the amount of goods and services we would get for our dollars is subject to change. That’s why gold is chuckling to itself. It is watching the supply of “money” and potential purchasing power increase at shocking rate. As it goes up, the quality of the money we hold goes down.
For the first time since the Great Depression, Americans are spending more than they earn. The savings rate is negative. This gap has to be filled with “money.” The nation’s trade deficit was $664 billion in 2004. In 2005, it rose to $806 billion. And the IMF estimates that it will hit $890 billion this year. These gaps, too, must be filled. Each deficit ends up in foreigners’ hands as purchasing power. In three years time, more dollars are added to the world’s supply than the current price of all the gold ever mined since the beginning of time.
Meanwhile, the U.S. federal budget deficits shoot up, too. During the two terms of George W. Bush alone, the feds have borrowed more money from foreign governments and banks than was borrowed by all other American administrations put together, from 1776 to 2000. So too will more debt be added to the national burden in the eight Bush years than in the previous 224.
According to the Bush-friendly Heritage Foundation, federal deficits are expected to rise to $1 trillion per year, by the year 2017, with a $16 trillion national debt, twice today’s level. After that, deficits should grow to $2 trillion per year.
Money, money, money…the Fed is also recreating new money at the fastest pace in history. At the present rate, M3 is ballooning even more rapidly than the trade deficit.
Gold guffaws…snorts…and chortles. It knows something, but it isn’t talking. Yesterday, it rose to another new high – over $550. It’s even higher than Google.
[Ed. Note: Wanna get in on the gold rush, but aren’t exactly sure how? You’re not alone, many newcomers feel daunted and confused by the task of diversifying their portfolio with the yellow metal. Luckily, our friends at EverBank have an easy and sensible way to do so – the 5-Year MarketSafe Gold Bullion CD – open to DR readers until January 24.
More news from Aussie Joel and The Rude Awakening…
Bill Bonner, back in London with more gratuitous opinions…
*** “Housing market shows clear signs of slowing,” says MSNBC. Experts quoted in the article say the market peaked in the summer. Now, there are record inventories of unsold houses. Here in the United Kingdom, housing seemed to peak out more than a year ago. But it has not crashed. “UK housing prices growing at slowest rate in 10 years,” says a Financial Times headline.
In China, however, property prices have reacted more decisively. After more than doubling in three years, Shanghai real estate is on its way down. Average up-market prices are off 30%, say reports in the British press. One Taiwanese man jumped from the 33rd floor of an apartment tower, perhaps in desperation. Others are dropping sales contracts, walking away from expensive apartments and suing each other.
[Ed. Note: Not unlike Los Angeles, Shanghai relies heavily on real estate to drive its economy. Could what’s happening in Shanghai be a sign of things to come for the U.S. housing market? It never hurts to be prepared.
*** The Dow ended 2005 lower than it began, but managed to scrape its way over 11,000 yesterday. The typical stock sells for about what it did six or seven years ago, with a current P/E ratio of about 20.
The lead stock is, of course, Google. We recall mocking the editor of Kiplinger magazine when he bought the stock at $200. Now the stock is over $400. Should we call him to apologize? Nah…
Unless you really do your homework, every stock is a speculation. We have run our own business for the last quarter of a century. Even so, we can never know in January how the year will turn out. Sales could be up…or down. Profits could be good, or terrible. Sometimes we hit our projections; sometimes we do not. Many businesses may be a lot more predictable. Still, unless you really understand the business as an insider would, you are just guessing. He guessed right, but this is not serious investing.
*** Well…finally…good news! “Wages growing fastest in 3 years,” says a headline in USA Today. When the economy is really making progress…when people really are getting wealthier…we will see it in wages. Businesses can make profits in a number of ways, many of them short-term or fraudulent. The GDP, job growth, and productivity figures are all distorted. The judgments of economists and politicians tend to be self-serving swindles. But when ordinary working stiffs can earn more money for each hour they work, then you have real prosperity.
And here is the evidence in USAT. Wages per hour rose in 2005 by 3.1%. Glory hallelujah!
But wait, the official figure for inflation is 3.5%. Ooooh…another disappointment. The poor working stiff actually got poorer, not richer. How could America’s dynamic, job-creating, super-productive, high-tech, hyper-capitalist economy actually reduce the value of the time that goes into it? Isn’t the whole idea of economic progress to make people wealthier…making it possible for them to earn more money while working fewer hours? What kind of scam is this?