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

by Lee Sigelman on December 6, 2007 · 6 comments

in International Relations

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.


Scott McClurg December 6, 2007 at 5:37 pm

How long until some conservative group picks up on this and uses it to attack Democrats?

AaronSw December 6, 2007 at 5:52 pm

I’m not sure how you can accuse a book written by a former fellow of the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution and a writer for American Conservative of being a Democrat.

Andreas December 6, 2007 at 5:57 pm

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

Also applies to the globale warming debate.

Matt Jarvis December 6, 2007 at 7:18 pm

Not sure I agree on the damage side (particularly on biological weapons).

However, I think that the root of Mueller’s problem is linked to a phenomenon he’s credited for the seminal research on: the rally effect. In the case of terrorism, the reason why people do it is that fear is a powerful motivator and is almost almost an irrational, emotional response. Not being a psychologist, I’m not sure how much a clear-eyed treatment that says “don’t be afraid” will work. But that would seem the only solution available.

Scott McClurg December 6, 2007 at 9:20 pm

In politics, the facts only loosely matter. You think the average American thinks academics are liberal or conservative? Now…how many know what the Cato Institute is?

Its the same kind of general logic offered by opponents the Bush strategy and, in my opinion, is the kind of thing that makes useful campaign fodder.

Lee Sigelman December 10, 2007 at 3:43 pm

For critiques of Mueller’s analysis by Graham Allison, Joseph Cirincione, and William C. Potter, with a response by Mueller, see this exchange in The National Interest.

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