Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Great Terrorism Scam

The Century's Biggest Boondoggle

On any given day, your chances of being killed in a terrorist attack on the United States in the 21st century are vanishingly small, say, less than one chance out of 35 billion. Lower than that, actually, unless, you are living on a military base in Texas, which does get attacked (in the 21st century) about one day every 3,500 days, or so. But on a really bad day--September 11, 2001 comes to mind--your chances of being killed go up to something less than one in 100,000. There are plenty of likelier ways for each of us to die.

Nevertheless, we are fighting a War on Terror that has to qualify as one of the biggest wastes of national treasure and brainpower and collective energy in our history. We kill about 100 of our own with our cars and trucks every single day (about 37,000 deaths per year). A death toll that we tolerate and, even, encourage. After all, we encourage driving, spending tens of billions of state and federal dollars annually to repair and expand our system of streets, roads, highways and bridges. Daily risk of dying in a driving accident: still pretty low at less than one chance in 3 billion, though higher, of course, if you are actually out driving.

One of my favorite books is Jeffrey Reiman's The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice, now out in its eighth edition. In my experience, Reiman improves and updates the book with every new edition, but I am looking now at chapter two from the sixth edition, "A Crime by Any Other Name...". The chapter includes subheads like "Work may be dangerous to your health," "Health care may be dangerous to your health," "Waging chemical warfare against America," and "Poverty kills." As you might guess, in this chapter Reiman demonstrates his thesis that our criminal justice system goes to great expense to "punish" criminal harms while national policy essentially overlooks far greater risks to individuals that arise from poverty and from routine occupational, medical and environmental practices.

Using data from 1997, Reiman points out that the FBI's "crime clock" showed a murder happening once every 29 minutes. A similar "clock ticks for half of the population that is in the labor force--this clock would show an occupational death about every 17 minutes! In other words, in about the time it takes for two murders on the crime clock, three workers have died just from trying to make a living." He goes on:
"To say that some of these workers died from accidents due to their own carelessness is about as helpful as saying that some of those who died at the hands of murderers asked for it. It overlooks the fact that when workers are careless, it is not because they love to live dangerously."

Workers, Reiman says, have quotas to meet that they do not set, workplaces to work in that they did not design with an eye to their own safety, equipment that they did not purchase themselves and may not be empowered to maintain. The point, updated to 2010, when far fewer dangerous jobs exist because they have been moved to China or elsewhere, is that far more Americans die each year from workplace accidents and work-related illnesses than will die from terrorist attacks in the next decade, or, even, during the remainder of this century. Yet we spend billions more every year on protecting ourselves against attacks that rarely happen (and when they do, happen with consequences that don't compare to other more regular events) than we spend on improving workplace safety and protecting workers against occupational illness.

In his section on health care, Reiman leads off with a quote from the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, released more than 35 years ago: "A recent study of emergency medical care found the quality, number, and distribution of ambulances and other emergency services severely deficient, and estimated that as many as 20,000 Americans die unnecessarily each year as a result of improper emergency care." Reiman demonstrates that little has changed since the report was released. Thousands of Americans still die from poor, inadequate and improper emergency care, while the number of deaths from terrorist attacks on American soil is, in most years, zero. And tens of thousands die annually in nonemergency situations from unnecessary, inadequate, improper and/or unavailable health care and from medical mistakes (malpractice). Yet we have spent perhaps a trillion dollars this decade on homeland security and "anti-terrorist" activities, while debating the appropriateness of improvements in national healthcare that would cost less and save and prolong and improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Washington National airport recently closed down for an hour in the middle of the day after someone entered a high security area by walking through an exit passage. Though the individual who did so was never found, thousands of airline customers waited in security lines and at gates while police combed the airport. That single incident may have cost several million dollars in lost productivity and further delays at other airports.

After a passenger on a Detroit-bound international flight was overpowered with a faulty bomb he had snuck onto the plane in his underwear, President Obama declared that the intelligence failures which permitted the man to fly in the first place would "not be tolerated." This is an interesting phrase.

Googling "will not be tolerated" reveals a vast range of things that someone somewhere stands ready to oppose. The list of intolerable things includes indiscipline in political parties, bleaching of hair and skin, homosexuality, terrorism, harassment of commuters, foul language, slandering the dead, foreign terrorists, mistreatment of fellow cannabis users, intolerance and something called "swine flu supplement fraud" to name just a few. Most of these things happen anyway, which suggests that nothing fails like a firm commitment to keep people from doing very human things, like failing to widely share information about suspected terrorists.

It would be far more helpful if President Obama were to say something like "hysteria about terrorism will not be tolerated," though it's quite clear that there is little that can be done to prevent that kind of hysteria, other than, perhaps, a return to form by the man once promoted as No-drama Obama. The truth is, there probably aren't very many people in the world, al Qaeda members, or otherwise, who are both capable of and willing to pull off a terrorist attack on American soil.

Sure there are regular suicide bombings in countries struggling with open conflict, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, to name three. But these are locations where people have been brutalized by acts of war and a variety of other assaults. They are also places where the line between combatants and noncombatants has been all but erased, and the possibility for vengeance, real or imagined, is high. But to travel to the US from one's homeland, or to immigrate here and subsequently evolve the mindset that might create a terrorist substantially reduces the number of possible attackers. Estimates available on the web puts the number of possible attackers somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand (see Ken Silverstein's 2006 piece, "The Al Qaeda Clubhouse: Members lacking" in Harper's Magazine here).

Further, you can bet that terrorist leaders, like Osama bin Laden "will not tolerate" failure by terrorist conspirators. That fact suggests that terrorists, like CIA agents and airport security personnel, fail frequently. So, yes, there will be more attacks (and many more failed attacks), but most of us, almost all of us, in fact, will survive. We may wait untold hours with our shoes and belts off, holding up our pants, waiting to be screened, and pay more to fly because somebody has to pay for the delays and the extra personnel, but we will survive. Meanwhile, people in power must want it to be this way, because they know, like we know, that lack of affordable healthcare and unsafe employment and climate change will kill (and sicken) more of us than terrorists ever will.

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