by Constantine von Hoffman

Why the US Needs a War on Fear–Not Terror

May 09, 20126 mins
Physical SecurityPrivacySecurity

A lot of legitimate threats exist in the world today, but not nearly as many as the U.S. goverment wants you to believe, according to blogger Constantine von Hoffman. Making decisions based on fear, instead of actual risk, can lead to a whole lot of silly actions.

(This post is the second installment of an ongoing look at how the U.S. government and businesses create imaginary hobgoblins to scare the public and how many people unquestioningly believe the hype. Part one was “Cybercrime Stats are Vastly Exaggerated.”)

Plenty of real threats exist in the world today, so a certain level of vigilance makes sense. Security is just another word for prudence. The problem is it’s very easy to let our anxieties run away with us. Then the vigilance we think we need to protect ourselves evolves into ever-expanding fear. As a result, we start to make decisions based on things that have little or no chance of happening. And such decisions often lead to actions that could do us more harm than good.

Which brings me to today’s subject: The War on Terror. It has resulted in two useless land wars, an exponential increase in the size of the government’s security bureaucracy and a steady reduction of civil rights in the United States.  We now live in a nation with an official policy that says it is okay for the government to kill American citizens without anything remotely resembling due process as long as it takes place outside of America and someone in the government decides the target is a threat.

In the wake of 9/11 the United States understandably freaked out, and the country did a whole lot of things it thought would protect it from the Bad Guys. Some of those things, like the introduction of stronger cockpit doors on airliners, actually did make us safer. Most of them did not.

If you would like to know more on how the War on Terror turns out read Alex Butterworth’s book The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents. Butterworth’s book is about the rise and fall of the anarchist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but you can just substitute “terrorist” or “al Qaeda” as needed and it’ll all make sense.

Some of the past anarchists terrorists were an actual threat. They went around setting off bombs and murdering people. They killed world leaders and plain ol’ ordinary folks. By killing the Archduke of Austria-Hungary and his wife, they even managed to set in motion the bloodiest war in history up to that point. 

But, as Butterworth points out, in many cases most, if not all, of the members of anarchist groups have turned out to be government agents. They were put there with the sometimes-reasonable assignment of keeping an eye on the Bad Guys and sometimes with orders to instigate trouble and foment public approval of a government crackdown. A fancy French term exists for the folks with the latter purpose: agents provocateurs. (Most things sound better in French. I ask you, which would you rather handle a sac poubelle or a garbage bag?)

This week the U.S. government announced yet another terrorist threat has been foiled.

The plot was discovered before it threatened any Americans, and no airliners were at risk, according to a U.S. counterterrorism official. A nonmetallic explosive device like the one used in the failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound jet in 2009 was recovered, the official said, adding that it was meant for use by a suicide bomber.

I do not know if this is true. Neither do you. It may very well be. There is only one source for the information, however, so the facts can’t be verified. Also, that source has motives for saying it has accomplished things it hasn’t and a recent track record of using people who could arguably be labelled as agent provocateurs.

According to David K. Shipler, at least three cases of thwarted terrorist plots “were facilitated by the F.B.I., whose undercover agents and informers posed as terrorists offering a dummy missile, fake C-4 explosives, a disarmed suicide vest and rudimentary training.” Were these sting operations or were they set ups?

Some were sting operations, no doubt. But in more than a few cases the alleged perpetrators seem about as smart as a sack full of rocks. Certainly a dimwitted person can hit a button and blow something up just as well as a smart one, so having a low IQ doesn’t prove someone’s malevolence or lack thereof.  But it should sure as hell make you think twice.

It is likely the American Communist Party would have gone broke had it not been for the large number of dues-paying government informants in its ranks. This should have tipped the government to the fact that those particular groups of communists weren’t much of a threat–and it probably did. But keeping the threat alive is good for the budget and telling the truth would have made them look pretty damn silly. It also would have meant admitting they had spied on Americans engaged in the perfectly-lawful activity of participating in a political party. ( Description of funding is wrong. See note below) 

Remember that the next time a terrorist plot gets foiled. If we really want to be more secure, we need to be skeptical of not just the perceived threats but the promised protections against those threats.

NOTE: My attempt to indicate the number of government agents in the US Communist Party was sloppily written and wrong. The Soviets gave Earl Browder’s gang tens of millions of dollars, far more than the FBI’s informants did. The FBI informants were part of an operation called COINTELPRO. Here is what the Senate’s Church Commission report said about it: Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that…the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.