Rating: 2 Stars
This book is about the absurdity that is the war on terror. Over the last 15 years, inside the United States, there have been (the count varies depending upon the source) somewhere around 150 deaths as a result of terrorist actions. We have spent over a trillion dollars ‘hardening’ our country against the terrorist threat. Considering that our population is somewhere around 320 million, that is an insane amount of money to be spent against a vanishingly small threat.
Consider that, in an average year, somewhere over 30,000 Americans die of gun deaths (murder, accident, or suicide), something like 35,000 Americans die in traffic accidents, over 500,000 Americans die of cancer, and somewhere around that same number will die of heart disease.
From a pure rational, logical point of view, this seems absurd.
This book tries to address this absurdity.
First of all, Mueller goes into detail regarding the various weapons of mass destruction that terrorists ‘experts’ have tried to, well, terrorize us with. For example, radioactive weapons (ie dirty bombs) really aren’t even that dangerous. They sound horrifying, but the bomb radius is actually quite small and the amount of radiation that a person near the bomb site might be exposed to barely qualifies as even being dangerous (ie slightly heightened cancer risk). Similarly, the range of chemical weapons is actually very narrow and is relatively non-lethal. An effective biological weapon that could cause mass casualties poses tremendous technical difficulties significantly beyond those of a terrorist cell.
The ‘experts’ like to talk about these WMD’s and use the phrase ‘existential threat’. Somehow, these weapons could somehow literally change our American way of life. These weapons all sound scary, and yes, there could very well be casualties, but again, remember the above numbers. Even a death toll of a couple of thousand would put it significantly behind gun deaths that we as a nation experience every year. We experience that number of gun deaths every year and yet we carry on the will to live on and our existence is not threatened in the slightest.
In fact, an argument can be made that the terrorist ‘experts’ are themselves the existential threat to our way of life because of the dread that we feel, the liberties that we’ve apparently willingly sacrificed, and the daily indignities that we now have to face (is taking off our shoes at the airport really keeping us safe?).
Not only that, the excess military grade materials and the untold billions of dollars that we’ve paid out in support of this terrorist threat has effectively militarized our local police, thus very effectively changing the previous relationship that the citizenry had with the group that enforces our laws.
He places our response to terrorism within other historical events. He discusses events like Pearl Harbor, the Cold War, the rise of Castro, the rise of the Ayatollah, and even, during the 80’s, the threat invoked by the growth of the Japanese economy.
In all cases, the United States exaggerated the thread and overreacted to it. At the very best much money and much angst was spent in facing up to each of these ‘existential threats’, only to have the threat eventually fade away. At the worst our panic and fear made the situation significantly worse and more dangerous.
Mueller even includes our response to Pearl Harbor in this category. In the larger scheme of the American military, he posits that Pearl Harbor wasn’t that big of a disaster and the full scale war that followed caused millions of deaths. He claims that the Japanese empire, especially with its situation in China, was overextended anyway and could have been dealt with more effectively with significantly less cost and death. I don’t know enough to comment, but it is a provocative opinion that I’d not previously heard.
So, if this book provoked all of this thought, why 2 stars?
Well, first of all, not its fault, but it is dated. It was published in 2006, when Bin Laden was still alive, the Iraq insurgency was in full swing, and he makes a mention of Syria being a stabilizing influence in the region. So, there is that.
Also, I was disappointed in the prose. The terror message is naturally compelling to our most basic instincts. The terror message is so financially lucrative that there are all kinds of smooth talking hucksters pitching it. The terror message is so politically powerful that pretty much all politicians beat their figurative chest and brag how tough and strong they are.
Against all of that are just tiny voices like this one. I’d like this tiny voice to at least itself be charismatic, undaunted, and full of verve.
Alas, this prose is none of that. I’m interested in the subject and believe his thesis, but even I had trouble staying alert and energized reading it.
This subject is so important that I want an evangelist standing at a pulpit, sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
He is not that evangelist.