January 28, 2008
The Terror Scare?By J.R. Dunn
Influential voices are peddling a dangerous fallacy: that the threat of terror is overblown, another example of scare tactics, like the supposedly nonexistent Communist threat in the 1940s and 1950s. Surprisingly level-headed people are hearing this siren call, at once so attractive and so dangerous.
John Tierney is possibly the most intelligent - and certainly the most balanced - featured writer that the New York Times currently possesses. He's very much his own man, by no means the kind of walking echo chamber that populates most of the paper's opinion pages. So it was a disappointment to come across his recent piece dealing with the War on Terror, "The Endless Fear of Terrorism".
Tierney's column is in large part devoted to the work of John Mueller of Ohio State University, author of Overblown. How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. Mueller's thesis is the commonplace liberal argument that there is no real terrorist threat and that the belief that there is amounts to an example of public hysteria. Mueller argues that the number of terrorist victims has remained roughly constant before and after 9/11, and that therefore "there has been little or no increase in the amount of international terrorism". (Tierney also throws in something called "availability cascades", a buzzword of the moment that means the same thing as "herd thinking". This is one of those deals in which new terminology is supposed to mean new knowledge. As we shall see, it does no such thing.)
Among many obvious fallacies here one is paramount: the number of victims is only one metric for judging terrorist activity, and possibly the least telling. The number of victims is the factor most open to reduction. A country can control that number the way it can few other numbers involving terrorism. It can't control the number of terrorists, it can't control the number of attacks, it can't control the number of attempts. But it can keep the terrorists, attacks, and attempts from being successful, which is precisely what U.S. antiterrorist policy has concentrated on since 9/11, and to all indications, quite successfully.
Did Mueller consider any of these other factors? There's no sign of it.
But as we move on, we begin to see what Mueller is really up to. His major point, on which he spends more time than any other, is that the current War on Terror is equivalent to the Red Scare of the early 50s. As we well know, liberal mythology concerning the Red hunt era is that there were no Reds to be scared of in the first place. The entire business, we've been assured for many years, was worked up by reactionary interests for purposes that have never been made quite clear but would surely make perfect sense if we ever got around to explicating them. So that's what Mueller, and Tierney after him, is arguing: that the War on Terror is essentially bogus, another example of American paranoia of a piece with the Reds-in-the-closet uproar of sixty years ago.
In some circles this argument would sound extremely convincing. The imaginary-communist-threat contention is a perennial, one that we're unlikely to ever see the last of, even though holding it requires almost complete ignorance of the historical facts -- an ignorance that both Prof. Mueller and John Tierney seem to share.
The history of left wing terror in America
American communism was in no way an isolated historical phenomenon, but one phase of left-wing terrorist activity in the U.S. (and elsewhere, needless to say) stretching across the better part of a century. Left-wing terror in the American context can be divided into three distinct phases: that of the Anarchists (1880 - 1920), the American communists (1930 - 1956), and the New Left (1962 -1976).
Though nearly forgotten today, the anarchists, under the name anarcho-syndicalists, were the chief international terrorist threat for two full generations. In fact, the anarchists could be said to have invented the concept of political terrorism, by means of the theoretical work of Mikhail Bakunin and Errico Malatesta, which was put to the practical test by hundreds of followers worldwide. Anarchists considered violence to be "Propaganda of the Deed", a method of getting their point across with the greatest possible impact. And they were very able propagandists. International leaders who fell victim to anarchist assassins include Sadi Carnot, the president of France, in 1894, Spanish prime minister Antonio Canovas del Castillo in 1897, the Austro-Hungarian empress Elizabeth (willful, eccentric, and one of the beauties of her era) in 1898, King Umberto I of Italy in 1900, and of course, President William McKinley in 1901. (Anarchists of the period claimed that McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was not actually a comrade, having been expelled from several of their organizations. But this is a pretty weak argument.)
We can only hit the highlights as far as bombings go, with each of the more well-known atrocities standing in for several hundred others. The Chicago Haymarket bombing of 1886, which killed seven policeman, the bombing of the French Chamber of Deputies in 1893, the Greenwich Observatory bombing of 1894 (a fictionalized version of this attack served as the centerpiece of Joseph Conrad's masterwork of the consequences of revolutionary violence, The Secret Agent), and the Wall Street bombing of 1920, which killed 40 people.
The anarchists were even then being shipped back where they had come from in lots of several thousand (the result of yet another bombing, that of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's home the year previously). Since most of them were Italian or Slavic, that meant that they were eventually dealt with by Mussolini or Stalin. The communists then took over the terrorist mantle.
Communist use of terror was more discreet than that of the anarchists, the communist parties being centrally controlled by the Communist International (or Comintern), which viewed such matters more strategically than their predecessors. Communist terrorism in the U.S. was in large part confined to their attempts to take over labor unions, if not through trickery and manipulation, than by brute force. A vast unwritten history awaits concerning the long battle waged by people such as David Dubinsky, the Reuther brothers, and for that matter, Ronald Reagan, to purge the unions of communist influence. That battle saw no limits, the communists stooping to beatings, bombings, and even maimings with acid and fire to get their way. The party was also known to hire Mob goons to handle the violence. (Granted that the standard weedy, narrow-chested communist intellectual might not have excelled in that style of activity.)
When we throw in post-Cold War revelations by figures such as Oleg Gordievsky and Vasili Mitrokhin concerning arms dumps on U.S. territory and plans to smuggle in nuclear weapons, we can see that American communists were a bit more of a handful than Mueller and Tierney are willing to grant. (If anything has been done about those arms dumps, which were evidently fully active during the Cold War period, I am not aware of it.) The country was in no way unjustified in taking steps to deal with these people.
But less than a decade after the party was crushed, a third wave appeared in the guise of the New Left. Most of the people involved in the movement which had its start at 1962's Port Huron Conference were earnest lefties seeking reform. But violent offshoots such as the Black Panthers and the Weathermen weren't long in coming. New Left groups were responsible for over 300 bombings in the late 60s, and would doubtless have carried out many more if the vanguard group, the Weather Underground, hadn't blown themselves up with their own bomb in Greenwich Village in 1970. Beyond that we have such colorful mutations as the Symbionese Liberation Army, which carried on the struggle well into the 70s.
The total number of killings carried out by the New left remains unknown. As far as I've been able to discover, nobody has ever made the effort to come up with a tally. Liberal mythology contends that only one individual died at the hands of the New Left -- a physics student killed by the University of Wisconsin bomb in 1970. But in truth several other bombing deaths occurred, the most well-known witnessed by the legendary physicist Freeman Dyson at San Jose University. (And covered in detail in his memoirs, Disturbing the Universe.) And what about all those killed by the Black Panthers, the Nyack cops shot by the SLA, and so on? Nailing the actual figure down would make for an excellent historical paper by some gutsy grad student.
This record tells us two things about Mueller's thesis: first, that his historical lens is far too narrow. It's as if somebody looked at the Pacific Ocean from January to May 1941 and decided that there couldn't be a war going on because there were no naval battles visible, and that therefore the Japanese threat was "overblown". You can demonstrate anything by trimming your data to the proper temporal dimensions. (Global warming alarmists utilize a similar technique.) Focusing exclusively on the American communist party gives Mueller the conclusion he was looking for at the cost of historical veracity.
The second point involves the conclusion that Mueller would have been led to had he looked at the bigger picture. Taking in events as a whole reveals to us that these violent movements mutate over time without ever abandoning their original impetus. As the anarchists were suppressed, their primary mission -- the destruction of the capitalist system -- was taken over on an official level by the world's communist parties. When the communists' turn came, the New Left rose to pick up the torch.
There is no reason to believe that the same process won't occur with the Jihadis. Responses to long-duration historical developments -- for the left, the consolidation of capitalism in the 19th century, for Islamofascism, the not dissimilar confrontation between Islam and modernism -- tend to be similar across cultures and epochs. (This is the basis of systems of historical morphology such as those of Spengler and Toynbee.) Jihadism will very likely follow the same pattern as the left, with new groups appearing to pick up the ball dropped by the previous one to keep it racing toward the goal. The next outfit that hits us may have no actual connection with Al-Queda or any of its affiliates. It may be totally new, it may be a variant, it may be an utterly harmless organization -- the Libyan All-Islamic Model Railway Association -- that gets bitten by the Jihad bug. But it will be fighting the same war, using the same techniques.
So eager was Mueller to stain the War on Terror with anti-communism (as the typical American academic views it) that in the process he stumbled through the entire vast wreckage of modern leftism without ever recognizing it for what it is. (And, sadly enough, dragging John Tierney, by the evidence of his work a superior thinker, along with him.) Considered in total, the lesson to be drawn from the West's encounter with the left is not that the Jihadis deserve less attention, but considerably more -- and a much broader form of attention than we might have previously thought necessary.
Our campaign against Al-Queda and its offshoots has been extraordinarily successful. There have been no further attacks despite repeated attempts (another element that Mueller ignores) But the next successful strike may well come from a completely different direction, from groups now considered harmless, or irrelevant, or that perhaps don't even yet exist. The lesson of the left gives us a means of checkmating such attempts. A difficult means, certainly -- one that will require a lot of work to develop. But the record of radicalism suggests that we must try.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.