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“Long Past Time We Got A Hold Of Ourselves”: Why Do We Freak Out About Terrorism, Anyway? Here’s Why We Shouldn’t

There’s a new poll out today from the Public Religion Research Institute showing that nearly half of Americans say they’re either very worried or somewhat worried that they or a member of their family will be a victim of terrorism.

You might say that’s understandable, given how much terrorism has dominated the news recently. But the truth is, they’re wrong. On a national scale, terrorism isn’t a threat, it’s a nuisance. We’re having a collective freakout about it right now, and that freakout serves the interests of those who are encouraging it. But we need to take a step back and look at just how dangerous terrorism really is.

Here’s a question we all ought to ask ourselves: When it comes to terrorism, what exactly are we afraid of? I know it seems self-evident — terrorism is scary! — but what exactly is it? If you try to articulate an answer, you quickly realize how infrequently we actually ask the question.

The simplest answer, of course, is that we’re afraid that terrorists will kill people. Okay, so how many people? According to the New America Foundation, since 9/11 there have been 45 Americans killed in jihadist terrorist attacks, and 48 Americans killed in right-wing terrorist attacks. Let’s put aside for the moment the fact that even though these two numbers are comparable, we don’t treat right-wing terrorism as something that requires any kind of policy response or even sustained attention. But you can’t argue that jihadi terrorism is something to be concerned about and afraid of because of the damage it’s been doing. An average of about three people killed per year in a country of 320 million is next to nothing.

So if it’s not because terrorists have managed to kill a lot of people in the last few years, are we petrified of terrorism because terrorists could kill lots of people in the near future? That’s possible. But how many could they kill? Another dozen, like in the San Bernardino shooting? A hundred? Five hundred? Since September 11 we’ve made it much harder to pull off a large-scale, spectacular attack. Terrorists aren’t going to be able to hijack airplanes and use them as missiles. It’s possible that there could be repeats  of the San Bernardino shootings, and that’s something to be concerned about. But we have mass shootings in America all the time. Why — again exactly — should we be more concerned about a repeat of San Bernardino than a repeat of Aurora, where nearly the same number of people (12) were killed?

Both were terrible, and both could happen again. But only in the case of San Bernardino does the event cause large portions of the public and elected officials to contemplate sweeping policy change, even up to and including the idea of starting another full-scale Middle East war because we’re so frightened. (Anytime there’s a mass shooting, Democrats push for gun control measures; but Republicans only call for a major policy response when it’s terrorism.)

There are some people who would argue that even if terrorists haven’t killed a lot of Americans lately, and even if it’s unlikely they’d be able to kill truly large numbers of Americans in the future, we still need to freak out about terrorism because a group like the Islamic State represents an “existential threat” to America. But if you get specific in the questions you ask, it becomes obvious that this idea is utterly deranged.

Back in the Cold War, the Soviet Union presented a true existential threat to the United States. It had enough nuclear missiles pointed at us to kill every man, woman, and child in America (and on the rest of the planet to boot). The Islamic State has no such capability. Is the Islamic State going to launch an invasion of the United States, sweep through the nation from Manhattan all the way to Seattle, take control of the whole country, and force America to live under its brutal rule? Of course not. Is it going to launch a coup from inside our government and raise its flag over the White House? No.

So what exactly is it we’re afraid the Islamic State will do to America? Right now I’m not talking about what it could do to Iraq or Syria, because that’s a very different question. What could it do to America? The absolute worst it could do is launch some successful attacks that might kill a dozen or even a hundred of us. And that would be awful. But about thirty Americans are murdered every day with guns, and a hundred die every day in car accidents. Eighty-three Americans die every day in falls, but we haven’t declared a “War on Falling,” and nobody tells pollsters that their biggest fear is that someone in their family will suffer a fatal fall.

If you actually force yourself to think in specific terms about the substance of the threat the Islamic State poses to us, you have to admit that the actual threat is miniscule. So why are we having a national freakout about it now? The answer, I think, lies in the presidential campaign, particularly in the Republican primary. You have a bunch of news organizations following around a bunch of candidates who know that the way to gain the support of their base is to prey on that base’s fears and prejudices. Add in the fact that the front-runner is a demagogic bigot, and you quickly get into a cycle of hysteria: a terrorist attack happens, it’s extensively covered in the media, the candidates seize on it to propose ever more radical policy changes (Keep out refugees! Put troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria! Keep out all the Muslims!) all the while proclaiming that the threat from terrorism is horrifyingly large and growing larger. The media report on their statements, voters get more nervous, and the candidates respond by feeding the panic.

Even outside their campaign coverage, the media give enormous attention to an event like San Bernardino, spending weeks analyzing not just the occurrence itself but who the perpetrators were, what motivated them, what they had for breakfast on the day of the attack, and everything else that can be uncovered. This coverage isn’t problematic in and of itself, but its sheer volume serves to reinforce the idea that terrorism is a huge threat that we all need to be terribly afraid of.

But it isn’t, and we don’t. We should be concerned, and we should take reasonable steps to minimize the risk we face from terrorism, just as we do with all the other risks we face. But right now we’re acting like a bunch of cowards. It’s long past time we got a hold of ourselves.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, December 10, 2015

December 15, 2015 Posted by | Fearmongering, GOP Presidential Candidates, Terrorism | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Errors And Lies”: The Iraq War Wasn’t An Innocent Mistake; The Bush Administration Wanted A War

Surprise! It turns out that there’s something to be said for having the brother of a failed president make his own run for the White House. Thanks to Jeb Bush, we may finally have the frank discussion of the Iraq invasion we should have had a decade ago.

But many influential people — not just Mr. Bush — would prefer that we not have that discussion. There’s a palpable sense right now of the political and media elite trying to draw a line under the subject. Yes, the narrative goes, we now know that invading Iraq was a terrible mistake, and it’s about time that everyone admits it. Now let’s move on.

Well, let’s not — because that’s a false narrative, and everyone who was involved in the debate over the war knows that it’s false. The Iraq war wasn’t an innocent mistake, a venture undertaken on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be wrong. America invaded Iraq because the Bush administration wanted a war. The public justifications for the invasion were nothing but pretexts, and falsified pretexts at that. We were, in a fundamental sense, lied into war.

The fraudulence of the case for war was actually obvious even at the time: the ever-shifting arguments for an unchanging goal were a dead giveaway. So were the word games — the talk about W.M.D that conflated chemical weapons (which many people did think Saddam had) with nukes, the constant insinuations that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11.

And at this point we have plenty of evidence to confirm everything the war’s opponents were saying. We now know, for example, that on 9/11 itself — literally before the dust had settled — Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, was already plotting war against a regime that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack. “Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] …sweep it all up things related and not”; so read notes taken by Mr. Rumsfeld’s aide.

This was, in short, a war the White House wanted, and all of the supposed mistakes that, as Jeb puts it, “were made” by someone unnamed actually flowed from this underlying desire. Did the intelligence agencies wrongly conclude that Iraq had chemical weapons and a nuclear program? That’s because they were under intense pressure to justify the war. Did prewar assessments vastly understate the difficulty and cost of occupation? That’s because the war party didn’t want to hear anything that might raise doubts about the rush to invade. Indeed, the Army’s chief of staff was effectively fired for questioning claims that the occupation phase would be cheap and easy.

Why did they want a war? That’s a harder question to answer. Some of the warmongers believed that deploying shock and awe in Iraq would enhance American power and influence around the world. Some saw Iraq as a sort of pilot project, preparation for a series of regime changes. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there was a strong element of wagging the dog, of using military triumph to strengthen the Republican brand at home.

Whatever the precise motives, the result was a very dark chapter in American history. Once again: We were lied into war.

Now, you can understand why many political and media figures would prefer not to talk about any of this. Some of them, I suppose, may have been duped: may have fallen for the obvious lies, which doesn’t say much about their judgment. More, I suspect, were complicit: they realized that the official case for war was a pretext, but had their own reasons for wanting a war, or, alternatively, allowed themselves to be intimidated into going along. For there was a definite climate of fear among politicians and pundits in 2002 and 2003, one in which criticizing the push for war looked very much like a career killer.

On top of these personal motives, our news media in general have a hard time coping with policy dishonesty. Reporters are reluctant to call politicians on their lies, even when these involve mundane issues like budget numbers, for fear of seeming partisan. In fact, the bigger the lie, the clearer it is that major political figures are engaged in outright fraud, the more hesitant the reporting. And it doesn’t get much bigger — indeed, more or less criminal — than lying America into war.

But truth matters, and not just because those who refuse to learn from history are doomed in some general sense to repeat it. The campaign of lies that took us into Iraq was recent enough that it’s still important to hold the guilty individuals accountable. Never mind Jeb Bush’s verbal stumbles. Think, instead, about his foreign-policy team, led by people who were directly involved in concocting a false case for war.

So let’s get the Iraq story right. Yes, from a national point of view the invasion was a mistake. But (with apologies to Talleyrand) it was worse than a mistake, it was a crime.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 18, 2015

May 19, 2015 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, Iraq War, Jeb Bush | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Dick Cheney’s America Is An Ugly Place”: Foremost Champion Of Amoral Patriotism, Residing Well Beyond Good And Evil

I used to like Dick Cheney.

I can still remember watching him on NBC’s Meet the Press back in the early 1990s, when he was serving as defense secretary under President George H. W. Bush. Whether he was talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union or making the case for expelling Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, Cheney was impressive. Unlike so many career politicians and Washington bureaucrats, he came off as charming, sober, smart, unflappable, and sincere.

Today? Well, I’ll give him this: He still seems sincere.

Some day I hope some psychologically gifted writer will turn his attention to Dick Cheney and explore just what the hell happened to him after the Sept. 11 attacks. Something about the trauma of that day — perhaps it was the act of being physically carried by the Secret Service into the Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the White House — flipped a switch in his mind, turning him into America’s foremost champion of amoral patriotism.

The man interviewed on Meet the Press this past Sunday resides completely beyond good and evil. Despite the manifest failure of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” to generate actionable intelligence, he has no regrets whatsoever. (“I’d do it again in a minute.”) He expresses nothing but contempt for the Senate intelligence committee’s 6,000-page report, based on 6 million pages of documents, meticulously cataloging forms of treatment that virtually every legal authority in the world and every totalitarian government in history would recognize as torture. Waterboarding, “rectal feeding,” confining a prisoner in a box for a week and a half, dangling others by their arms from an overhead bar for 22 hours at a time, making prisoners stand on broken bones, freezing prisoners nearly to death — none of it, according to Cheney, amounts to torture.

What does constitute torture? For Cheney, it’s “what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.” (Maybe our military response to the events of that day should have been christened “The Global War on Torture.”)

Perhaps most stunning of all was Cheney’s response to Chuck Todd’s question about 26 people who, according to the Senate report, were “wrongfully detained” by the CIA at its overseas black sites. The imprisonment and torture of innocent people? “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.” The end justifies any means. Got it.

Cheney’s hardly the first person to defend such a position. Machiavelli advocated a version of it in The Prince. It’s been favored by some of the most ruthless nationalists and totalitarians in modern history. And it’s expressed in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic by the character Polemarchus (the name means “leader in battle”), who defines justice as helping friends (fellow citizens) and harming enemies (anyone who poses a threat to the political community). This is what patriotism looks like when it’s cut off from any notion of a higher morality that could limit or rein it in. All that counts is whether an action benefits the political community. Other considerations, moral and otherwise, are irrelevant.

The problem with this view, which Socrates soon gets Polemarchus to see, is that amoral patriotism is indistinguishable from collective selfishness. It turns the political community into a gang of robbers, a crime syndicate like the Mafia, that seeks to advance its own interests while screwing over everyone else. If such behavior is wrong for an individual criminal, then it must also be wrong for a collective.

But this judgment presumes the existence of a standard of right and wrong that transcends the political community. Just as an individual act of criminality is wrong because it violates the community’s laws, so certain political acts appear worthy of being condemned because they seem to violate an idea of the good that overrides the politically based distinction between friends and enemies.

There are many such standards. In the Republic, Plato’s Socrates nudges Polemarchus toward the view that true justice is helping friends who are good and harming no one. Then there are the Hebrew Bible’s commandments and other divine laws, Jesus Christ’s insistence on loving one’s enemies, categorical moral imperatives, and the modern appeal to human dignity and rights — all of these universal ideals serve to expand our moral horizons beyond the narrow confines of a particular political community and restrict what can be legitimately done to defend it against internal and external threats.

Against these efforts to place moral limits on politics stand those, like the former vice president, who claim that public safety depends upon decoupling political life from all such restrictions. Friends and enemies, us and them, with us or against us, my country right or wrong — it doesn’t matter which dichotomous terms are used. All of them emphasize an unbridgeable moral gulf separating the political community from those who would do it harm. And that gulf permits just about anything. Even torture. Even the torture of innocents. Even redefining torture out of existence in order to exonerate the perpetrators. Everything goes, as long as friends are helped and enemies are harmed.

That’s what Dick Cheney — along with a distressingly large number of Americans — understands by patriotism: a willingness to do just about anything to advance the interests of the United States and decimate its enemies.

Just like a lawless individual.

Just like a gang of robbers.


By: Damon Linker, The Week, December 16, 2014

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, Meet The Press, Torture | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Painfully Obscene”: Dick Cheney’s Tortured Appearance On ‘Meet The Press’ Should Be His Public Swan Song

It pretty much goes without saying that any pundit or political writer coming from the left side of center can be expected to presume Vice President Dick Cheney to be nothing less than the political equivalent of Darth Vader.

However, there has remained a small cadre of left leaning pundits and commentators willing to give a fair hearing to the man who was arguably the most powerful Vice-President in the nation’s history—a group I previously would have included myself to be among.

After Mr. Cheney’s appearance on Sunday’s “Meet The Press”—where he employed twisted rationales coupled with outright, provable and painful lies to support his position on torture—finding a commentator from either side of the aisle willing to give credibility to Cheney, let alone those from the left, should prove exponentially harder if not completely impossible.

While there was nothing particularly surprising or odd about Cheney highlighting the politics that may have played a role in last week’s release of the Senate torture report, even the most ardent Cheney supporter had to question the logic of the Vice President’s answers—which are better characterized as retorts—most notably Mr. Cheney’s constant deflection of a question asking for his definition of illegal treatment of detainees.

Cheney’s response?

Torture is  “an American citizen on his cellphone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York on 9/11.”

Cheney would be right were he to pose this as an example rather than the defining metric when seeking to determine an act of torture.  The horrendous, unthinkable experience referred to by Cheney is, unquestionably, one example of inflicting torture—and a pretty good example of horrific torture at that—but hardly the sole method that Cheney insisted on pretending to be the case.

Yet, each time Cheney was asked for a more realistic and more encompassing definition of torture that would rationally go beyond any one particular example, he continuously returned to the experiences of our lost countrymen on 9-11. This seemed, in the mind of Dick Cheney, to be the only standard to be applied when determining if our interrogation methods may have exceeded the legal bounds imposed by the Geneva Convention for the treatment of detainees.

At a point, it became more than clear that Cheney had pre-planned this “non-answer” for his appearance, thinking it to be very clever.

By pretending that only a horrible infliction of agony similar to what was heaped on the victims of 9-11 would rise to a level that could be termed torture, the Vice-President was simply sending a coded message to his supporters to remind them that, given what the bad guys did to us, there was nothing too horrible that we could do to them—Geneva Convention be damned.

Of course, that includes waterboarding, a practice that Cheney continued to argue is not an interrogation method that constitutes torture or a violation of international law.

I can appreciate that there are a great many Americans who agree that torture should be employed in the circumstances we have faced in our battle with terrorists. Indeed, a CBS News poll out today reveals that while more than half of all Americans believe that waterboarding is torture, just a bit less than half of the American public believes that the use of torture is sometimes appropriate .

If Cheney had shown up on “Meet The Press” and argued that what we did was torture but that, in his estimation, it was completely appropriate to engage in such torture under the circumstances, a far more meaningful discussion could have ensured.

Instead, Cheney played a game of saying that what we did was not torture while winking to his loyal supporters in the audience in an effort to say that what we did certainly was torture…but you know you loved it.

In what might have otherwise been amusing, had the entire performance not been so painfully obscene, Cheney actually went on to admit that there did exist actions that constitute torture, separate and apart from the one and only criteria he was willing to subscribe to involving 9-11 victims.

When Chuck Todd reminded the Vice-President that the United States prosecuted and hung Japanese soldiers following WWII for engaging in the waterboarding of American soldiers, Cheney answered that this was not the reason we hung offending Japanese soldiers. According to Cheney, we prosecuted these people, “For a lot of stuff, not for waterboarding… and they did a lot of other stuff.”


By: Rick Ungar, Forbes, December 15, 2014

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Dick Cheney, Torture, Waterboarding | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Old Failed Gang Is Back Together”: After Spectacular Failures And Unprecedented Abuses, Pretending To Have Credibility

Several prominent officials from the Bush/Cheney era have been in the news lately, largely as a result of ongoing controversies, but many of them — Robert Gates, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, retired Gen. David Petraeus — are under fire from the right for not toeing the party’s anti-Obama line.

There are, however, plenty of loyal Bushies stepping up to launch rhetorical attacks. Indeed, they seem happy to pretend they still have credibility and are compelling messengers to express their party’s contempt for the president.

Former Attorney General Mike Mukasey was on Fox News this morning accusing Obama of abusing the power of the executive branch (no, seriously); former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is making the rounds on conservative talk radio; and former Vice President Dick Cheney is, well, doing what Dick Cheney does.

“They lied. They claimed it was because of a demonstration video, that they wouldn’t have to admit it was really all about their incompetence,” Cheney told Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Monday. “They ignored repeated warnings from the CIA about the threat. They ignored messages from their own people on the ground that they needed more security.”

“I think it’s one of the worst incidences, frankly, that I can recall in my career … if they told the truth about Benghazi, that it was a terrorist attack by an Al Qaeda-led group, it would destroy the confidence that was the basis of his campaign for reelection,” Cheney added. “They tried to cover it up by constructing a false story.”

As a substantive matter, much of what Cheney said is ridiculous and wrong, as is often the case. If the failed former V.P. has proof of White House lies and a cover-up, he’s welcome to share it, but the fact that preliminary intelligence out of Benghazi was wrong isn’t evidence of either.

But more to the point, does Dick Cheney, of all people, really want to have a conversation about national security lies, ignored warnings about terrorist threats, and covering things up by constructing false stories? Because that’s largely a summary of his eight years of spectacular failures and unprecedented abuses in office. Indeed, I’m not sure whether to find it funny or sad that he, Rumsfeld, and Mukasey feel comfortable showing their faces in public again.

As for Cheney seeing Benghazi as “one of the worst incidences” that he “can recall,” I’m not going to play a game of ranking the seriousness of terrorist attacks, but I’m curious if Cheney recalls 9/11. If he doesn’t think that counts — and there’s some evidence to suggest he doesn’t — and he only wants to focus on attacks on American outposts abroad, I wonder if Cheney might also recall the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut that left 241 American servicemen dead, right before Reagan cut and ran.

Any of this ring a bell, Dick?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 14, 2013

May 15, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Neo-Cons | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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