Terrorism and Threat Inflation: Fear Is the Mind-Killer


W.J. Astore

Over the last ten years in the United States. more than 280,000 Americans have died because of guns.  Over that same period, roughly 350,000 Americans have died on the roads in vehicular accidents.  That’s roughly 630,000 Americans dying every decade either in road accidents or by gunshots, which is roughly the number of Americans who died in the horrible carnage of the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865, America’s bloodiest war.

In other words, at the hands of guns or vehicles, Americans suffer the equivalent of a civil war-like bloodletting each and every decade.  Is it time to declare war on guns and cars?

Apparently not.  Instead, our media and leaders prefer to fixate on terrorism, which has accounted for 24 deaths over the same period.  Indeed, by the numbers the White supremacist threat to America is twice as serious as threats from ISIS or other external radical groups.

According to the Washington Times,

“In the 14 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, nearly twice as many people have been killed in the United States by white supremacists and anti-government radicals than by Muslim jihadis, according to a new study.”

“White supremacists and anti-government radicals have killed 48 Americans … versus 26 killings by Muslim radicals, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.”

“New America program associate David Sterman said the study shows that white supremacy and anti-government idealists are a major problem, that their growth rate needs to be addressed and that there is an ‘ignored threat’ woven in the fabric of American society.”

Given these numbers and realities, why are America’s leaders so fixated on hyping the threat of radical Islamic terrorists?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on saving lives on our roads?  Reducing gun accidents and gun crimes and suicide by guns?  On reducing hate-filled radicalism within our own country?

We should be, but we’re not.  Our leaders prefer threat inflation: They believe in making political hay while the foreign terrorist threat shines.  So candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio predictably call for a war on terrorism, for military “boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq, and (of course) for higher military spending and more surveillance in the name of protecting America.  Threat inflation knows no political party, of course, with Hillary Clinton joining the chorus of the talk-toughers against terror.

Threat inflation sells.  And threat inflation pays.  This is an important theme in Tom Engelhardt’s latest tour de force at TomDispatch.com, “The National Security State’s Incestuous Relationship with the Islamic State.”  As Tom notes, threat inflation drives a dance of death even as it eliminates grey zones — opportunities for dialog, diplomacy, compromise, forms of accommodation.  It enforces a black and white world of crusaders and jihadists bent on killing one another in the name of righteousness.

Here is how Engelhardt puts it:

the officials of [the U.S. national] security state have bet the farm on the preeminence of the terrorist “threat,” which has, not so surprisingly, left them eerily reliant on the Islamic State and other such organizations for the perpetuation of their way of life, their career opportunities, their growing powers, and their relative freedom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that comfortably all-embracing blanket of secrecy that envelops their activities.  Note that, as with so many developments in our world which have caught them by surprise, the officials who run our vast surveillance network and its staggering ranks of intelligence operatives and analysts seemingly hadn’t a clue about the IS plot against Paris (even though intelligence officials in at least one other country evidently did).  Nonetheless, whether they see actual threats coming or not, they need Paris-style alarms and nightmares, just as they need local “plots,” even ones semi-engineered by FBI informers or created online by lone idiots, not lone wolves. Otherwise, why would the media keep prattling on about terrorism or presidential candidates keep humming the terror tune, and how, then, would public panic levels remain reasonably high on the subject when so many other dangers are more pressing in American life?

The relationship between that ever-more powerful shadow government in Washington and the Islamic terrorists of our planet is both mutually reinforcing and unnervingly incestuous.

Of course, Engelhardt knows that terrorism must be fought.  The point is not to lose our collective heads over the (much exaggerated) threat of it.  To cite Frank Herbert’s insight in Dune, “Fear is the mind-killer.”  Yet our media and leaders seem determined to hype fear so as to kill our minds.

As our media and politicians stoke our fear by exaggerating the threat posed by terrorism, ask yourself to what purpose are they attacking your minds.

Hint: It certainly isn’t about keeping you safe.

10 thoughts on “Terrorism and Threat Inflation: Fear Is the Mind-Killer

  1. Pingback: Terrorism and Threat Inflation: Fear Is the Mind-Killer | The Grey Enigma

  2. Things don’t get much more incestuous than the CIA’s relationship with Osama bin-Laden. Incestuous? More like paternal-filial! An attempt to blow up the World Trade Center in NYC was made in 1993; the plot was blamed on a blind “sheik” residing in Brooklyn. The general public never heard of any such entity as “al-Qaeda”–I’m using quotation marks because who the hell knows what’s really going on these days, with false-flag ops, entrapment by the FBI, Obama unable to vet more than a half-dozen Syrian anti-Assad rebels, etc.–until the events of 9/11. Then we were told bin-Laden was the mastermind and allegedly holed up in a cave in Afghanistan: bingo, an “excuse” to invade that godforsaken country. Then word got out that the CIA had put Osama in business as its proxy to fight Soviet forces in that same country in the 1980s. The CIA was unable to deny this origin story. This didn’t prevent the professional liars in “our” government from ginning up the war against Saddam Hussein, trying to connect him to 9/11. Now we have an organization apparently (again, in the current insane atmosphere, who knows what is real and what fake?) dedicated to hastening the End of Days…perfect allies for the lunatic fringe evangelical crowd here in the US! They share a common goal! And who provided the fertile field upon which this madness grew? Why, the brilliant foreign policy of the USA, of course. Talk about an unvirtuous circle! The media love a tragedy like the events in Paris; they will milk it and milk it until something more bombastically tragic develops. But fear not, my fellow Americans, Big Brother will keep us safe. All he asks in return is that we continue to gradually surrender our civil liberties here on the homefront. Shhhh…don’t make a peep about it. You’ll be designated a terrorist. Like Edward Snowden! Yes, lunatic Republicans have actually tried to blame the European internal security failures on poor little Ed. Where will all this end? To borrow the name of a musical I’ve never seen, “Stop The World, I Want To Get Off.”

  3. I agree entirely with Englehardt and Astore whose central point is this: the American security apparatus is completely out of proportion to the terrorist threat and, furthermore, counterproductive for reducing the terrorist threat in the future. But their count of US deaths from terrorism on American soil going back only ten years, or even 14 years, might fairly be scorned as a wily set up to win a point. There’s something to be said for the old line “Liars, damned liars, and statisticians.”

    When one raises statistical comparisons with people who are on the fence or on the other side of this argument, it might be best to enter the debate with a fair sample of stats going back, in this case, fifteen years to include the count from 9/11. Yes, we must indeed point out how threat inflation is wasteful and stupid, but let’s not resort to a highly selective sample to claim the terrorist threat is on a par with shark attacks.

    • That’s a fair point, but of course everyone knows about 9/11. That spectacular “success” was a one-off that skews the data. An anomaly, in other words.

  4. On Monday morning, with everyone feeling strung out from a weekend of horrifying news from Paris, we participated in a lockdown drill at school. This is an exercise where we lock the doors, secure bungee cords (!) to doorknobs of connecting rooms that have no locks and herd the students into a corner and wait while various administrators check to see that we have locked the doors. We participate in this little absurdity several times a year. “It’s just a drill,” we tell the kids, but even among middle schoolers, there is a current of fear that has been strengthened by a weekend of immersion in news reports. Of course, everyone knows that it isn’t terrorists we fear in suburban New Hampshire, but the ordinary, home-grown, gun-toting crazy person who decides to shoot up the local school.

    Yet, there is no real conversation about limiting access to guns or any real improvement in the mental health care system.

    Instead, our Democratic governor has joined a rogue’s gallery of Republican governors (among them Bobby Jindal and Maine’s appalling Paul LePage) in objecting to the resettlement of Syrian refugees. This in the name of keeping us safe from terrorists.

    • Yes, xenophobia is the safe response for politicians now. “My” US Congressman, usually an Obama team player, voted for the bill to cut off refugees. Conveniently overlooked: 1.) it appears all the Paris attackers had been residing (legally, I think) in Europe for some time; 2.) the passport suggesting one of them had arrived in the current wave of refugees from the US-created Anarchy Zone was reportedly fake. Fear is one of the very strongest emotions, and rationality gets tossed out the window when such events unfold in the world.

      • There is talk of Islamophobia and xenophobia today. However, people’s beliefs and attitudes in the U.S. and Europe did not occur in a vacuum but in significant attacks with great loss of life in Europe and U.S.

        The statistical record of deaths by other means is beside the point because they are insufficient to explain human events steeped in emotion, current events and history. The attackers in killings, such as in Paris recently, often fervently claim allegiance to Islam. Is it for non-Moslems to deny or minimize their adherence to a distorted Islam or is for Moslems to do so because it is their religion? Also the number of people and organizations involved in wanting to strike at American and European targets is sufficiently large to activate considerable defenses against them. Do we want to say they are a minor threat which requires minimal action for prevention?

        About 20 million people of the Islamic faith who live in Europe and about 6 million who live in the U.S. There is no comparable number of Christians living in Moslem countries or in Islamic countries in the Middle East. So to say Americans and Europeans are predominately Islamophobic is premature and inaccurate when Islamic countries are so insular.

        Right now, there is a predominate perspective that it is we Americans who are unduly encumbered with prejudice in the face of a violent group claiming adherence to Islam committing atrocities. Some may claim these attacks were justified by the death and destruction caused by the Iraq War. There is a history of Islam that exists and continues which does not necessarily embrace tolerance of other religions which should not be side tracked today.

        Christian and other religions have historically been limited in Islamic countries. Pope Francis decried the Armenian Genocide in the 20th Century, which was ignored or minimized in the Moslem world. Pope Francis was condemned for his recognition of Armenian Genocide by Turkey’s President. Does this exhibit tolerance or understanding or promote dialogue?

        The tragedy of the Iraq War was that it created chaos and subsequent blowback. The lesson is that such interventions are a grave mistake. Because of that mistake are Americans assuaging guilt by ignoring the insularity and phobias of Islamic countries towards other religions and peoples? There is little focus on Islam, its tenets and history which have been detrimental.

        We can do our part in admitting refugees to remedy a humanitarian crisis. What is the role of Muslim countries in the refugee crisis for other Muslims and has it been reported?

        It is essential that humanity of different religions live in harmony. Harmony is a two way street of tolerance and understanding, not a one way street called Islamophobia.

  5. Pingback: Terrorism in perspective: some numbers | Phil Ebersole's Blog

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