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The Hypothesis that Dare Not Speak Its Name about the International Terrorist Threat

- December 6, 2007

John Mueller is an unfailingly provocative scholar of international affairs who (ironically from his perch in the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University) has challenged the core assumptions of the U.S. response to international terrorism. Mueller’s thesis is accurately conveyed by the title of his
book-length treatment
of the subject, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

Mueller’s “hypothesis that dare not speak its name” is the claim — which strikes some as outrageous and others as a much-needed antidote to a fundamentally flawed policy response — that the U.S. has wildly overreacted to the terrorist threat. I claim no expertise whatsoever on matters pertaining to this issue, so rather than trying to assess Mueller’s argument I’ll simply itemize some of his main points and invite interested readers to follow up on their own.

* Terrorism, particularly international terrorism, doesn’t do much damage when considered in almost any reasonable context.

* The likelihood that any individual American will be killed in a terrorist event is microscopic. Outside of 2001, fewer people have been killed in the U.S. by international terrorism than have drowned in toilets or have died from bee stings.

* Just about any damage terrorists are likely to be able to perpetrate can be readily absorbed. To deem the threat an “existential” one is somewhere between extravagant and absurd.

* Chemical and radiological weapons, and most biological ones as well, are incapable of perpetrating mass destruction.

* The likelihood that a terrorist group will be able to master nuclear weapons any time soon is extremely, perhaps vanishingly, small.

* Policies that focus entirely on worst-case scenarios (or worst-case fantasies) are unwise and can be exceedingly wasteful.

* Much, probably most, of the money and effort expended on counterterrorism since 2001 has been wasted.

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