Monday, December 4, 2006
Cass Sunstein writes an interesting review in the New Republic of two books that claim that the terrorist threat has been overplayed for political purposes. The books are Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them, by John Mueller, and What's Wrong With Terrorism, by Robert E. Goodin. Unfortunately, the review appears to be only available to subscribers. Here is an excerpt:
Goodin believes that public warnings about terrorism might themselves be terroristic. . . . But the more fundamental problem with Goodin's argument lies elsewhere. If Bush could be counted as a "terrorist" on the prevailing understanding of that term, then we had better rethink that understanding of the term, and start making some distinctions. Of course we should count as terrorists those who help to plant bombs with the goal of producing political change. Perhaps we can agree that those who approve of the goals of terrorists, and offer warnings in order to achieve those very goals, are in a sense terrorists too. But words have purposes, and for any reasonable purpose it is important to distinguish between terrorists and public officials who warn or scare people in part to achieve their own political goals. Lyndon Johnson did not engage in terrorism when he ran his famous advertisement warning of the risks of nuclear war if Barry Goldwater were to be elected president. Nor should we accuse Democratic candidates of being terrorists when they attempt to gain political advantage by frightening people into thinking that if Republicans get their way, the Iraq war will be prolonged indefinitely or they will lose Social Security or health care benefits (and maybe die prematurely). Unfortunately, there is no precise English word for candidates and officials who inculcate fear for their own ends, but "fearmongers" comes pretty close. We produce confusion, not understanding, when we subsume both members of Al Qaeda and fearmongers under the general rubric of "terrorists."
Sunstein also questions the claim of the books that the terrorist threat has been overestimated.