Soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, conventional wisdom argued that another attack was imminent. Ohio State University Professor John Mueller was among the few who challenged conventional wisdom.
Mueller, who prides himself on questioning assumptions most consider fact, has applied this approach to topics as varied as public opinion during the Vietnam War, popular conceptions of warfare, and perceptions of democracy and capitalism.
In 2006, following the publication of Mueller's book, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them,he received an email from Mark Stewart, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Stewart, who had done work on risk and cost assessment and homeland security, happened to be visiting Ohio State at the time. They met for coffee. The series of articles they collaborated on became a book. Terror, Security and Money distills their thinking on the costs and benefits of the domestic war on terrorism.
The Crime Report spoke to Mueller from his office at Ohio State University, where he holds the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies.
The Crime Report: You start your book by saying that when it comes to homeland security we're asking the wrong question. People wonder “are we safer?” You and your co-author say the right question is: “are any gains in security worth the funds expended?” Why? .
John Mueller: The question is not “Are we safer” but “How safe are we?” If the chances are actually one in 3.5 million per year of being killed by a terrorist, then the question is how much safer do you want to be, and how much money do you want to spend?
It makes sense to compare it to other risks that are out there. Your chance of being a victim of homicide is about one in 22,000. Your chance of being killed in an automobile accident is about one in 7,000 or 8,000 per year as an American. Terrorism should be kept in that kind of context.
TCR: Terror, Security and Money asks if we are getting our money's worth in the domestic war on terror. You explain your methods these as standard risk assessments–but you say the government isn't doing those assessments with regard to homeland security.
JM: We couldn't find any. Then the National Academy of Sciences did a two–year study, and they said they couldn't find any that passed muster for them. And that's pretty shocking.Just on domestic expenditures, [the increase] has been over a $1 trillion since 9/11. That doesn't include the wars overseas. Spending that money without knowing what you're doing is pretty irresponsible.
TCR: Why do you think the Department of Homeland Security can get away with that?
JM: There is a demand—obviously 9/11 was really traumatic—to increase public safety. Increasing expenditures after 9/11 isn't a big surprise. But if you're doing that, you should do it responsibly. There isn't a demand, for example, that we have large numbers of U.S. Marshals on airplanes. There isn't a demand that [we] must take our shoes off before getting on airplanes. There isn't a demand to have security barriers everywhere. The point is: spend the money wisely, increase our safety, but specifics are not part of the mandate.
When we looked at Britain, in proportion to its economy and population, the increase of expenditures since 9/11 is less than half as much as the United States. People in Britain certainly want safety as much as anyone else does, and they also have a considerable terrorism issue there. People are very aware of it, and they've certainly had some tragedies. Nonetheless it doesn't follow that you have to spend this kind of money.
TCR: What do you say to people who argue that the lack of any great event since 9/11 is proof that the approach is working?
JM: We've looked at that. We tried to find out how many terrorist attacks would have had to take place to justify those kind of expenditures. That's one thing you can do with this sort of analysis. You say, okay, these measures have really reduced the risk a terrific amount. How many large attacks would they have to have had to deter, prevent or protect against to justify their expenditures? It comes out to be an astronomically high number—maybe four a day, or one every other day. By that fairly straightforward standard what we're doing is massively overspending for the hazard that terrorism presents.
TCR: What about the idea that spending has created an industry that people depend on now? There are hundreds of people, for example, employed by the Department of Homeland Security.
JM: The issue is, should you be hiring a lot of people do be dealing with a hazard that is only of limited consequence, when you could be hiring them for a hazard that are of much greater consequence or much greater frequency? If you want to hire people, that's fine, if you've got the money. But should they be employed in endlessly going through tips that lead to nothing? The New York “If you see something, say something” campaign gets tens of thousands of tips every year. None of those has led to a terrorism arrest. Nevertheless they're spending millions of dollars promoting it–federal tax money, by the way.
TCR: Did you discover any instances in which money was well spent?
JM: We looked a fair amount at airline security, and we generally pretty much agree that hardening cockpit doors on airplanes is worthwhile, and also the training of flight crews. Both of those are pretty inexpensive. You do it once and you're done, whereas things like the Air Marshals are just extremely expensive—over $1 billion a year now—and do not enhance security much at all.
TCR: You note in the book that one significant hurdle to policies you consider more rational is a shortage of “that oxymoronic commodity”–political courage. Can you explain that?
JM: Politicians basically don't see any upside in saying what I'm saying. I suppose they're afraid if they say something like I'm saying, their opponents will jump all over them. There's only been one case in which any official has ever said, in public, “get a life, your chance of being killed by a terrorist is the same as your chance of being killed by lightening,” which is roughly correct. And that was [New York City] Mayor Michael Bloomberg a few years ago. He said it, and people listened. He was reelected two years later.
No one ever says these things, with rare exceptions. It suggests the depth of the problem and the depth of the fear of the problem.
TCR: There have been several high-profile terrorists plots thwarted over the past decade. But your book implies most of those arrested belong to a “set of plotters…most notable for their boneheaded incompetence and disorganization, and might never have pulled anything off.”
JM: There's been an exaggeration of the capacities and the competence of the terrorism threat. It's really a very limited phenomenon, and although it does horrible things from time to time, the most horrible being the destruction from 9/11, the overall threat is really very limited.
The more you look at [the cases], the less impressive they are. Many of these guys were dangerous in the sense that they were spouting venom and were really angry. But their capacity to do much of anything was extremely limited and the plots were in the process of falling apart before arrests were being made.One way of putting it is no terrorist has been able to set off a single bomb in the U.S. since 9/11. It's not as if you're up against a very capable adversary.
TCR: September 11th happened a decade ago. Why write this book now?
JM: The key thing is to encourage what some people might call an adult conversation about terrorism. It's been long overdue, and there have been these fantastic expenditures. In our view, it's high time, long past high time, to really look at them carefully.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Lisa Riordan Seville is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes reader comments.