The brief // by Ben FrankelIs the terrorist threat overhyped?

Published 13 May 2011

There are serious people who raise thoughtful questions about the nature and scope of the terrorist threat to Western societies, and because they do not accept the assumptions of both the Bush and Obama administrations about the nature of the threat, they criticize these administrations’ policies; this group of critics of current policies are joined by others who belong to a second group of critics: in this second group we find people who do not share the assessment of members of the first group about the nature of the threat, but who join them in criticizing government anti-terror policies as too expensive, to intrusive, and ineffective; a new, thought-provoking article on the subject performs a useful service in that it should keep advocates of expensive and intrusive government anti-terrorism policies honest

Psychologists tell us that the people cannot cope with what they term “cognitive dissonance.” One suffers from cognitive dissonance when one’s knowledge and beliefs contradict one’s actions. Thus, if one knows and believes that most smokers die prematurely of lung cancer, and he or she still smokes a pack or two a day, they find themselves facing the unbearable tensions of cognitive dissonance.

There are only two ways to resolve the tensions attendant to cognitive dissonance: change one’s beliefs so they agree with one’s actions, or change one’s actions so they accord with one’s beliefs. When the change is made, harmony replaces dissonance.

In the example above: smokers, acting on their knowledge and beliefs, may quit smoking so their actions are in agreement with their beliefs – or they may continue to smoke but convince themselves that they belong to the small group of smokers who do not get cancer, thus making their actions (continuing to smoke) congruent with their beliefs (they belong to the minority that will not get cancer).

We see a similar pattern with the attitudes of people toward homeland security – especially toward two aspects of government’s reaction to the problems of homeland security: large government outlays to secure the nation, and intrusive measures – from full-body scanning to warrantless wiretapping to searching digital storage media at border crossings – the government has undertaken to bolster public safety.

The problem is especially vexing to believers in the need to reduce the role of government in our lives – reduction which would be achieved if we made the government smaller, shrank government budgets, enacted fewer regulations, and decentralized and devolved government responsibilities.

The approach of the two U.S. administrations in power since 9/11 – one Republican, one Democrat – has been to move in the opposite direction of what small-government advocates would prefer. The Bush administration created a huge new government department in DHS, expanded dramatically the reach and scope of domestic spying, enlisted the National Security Agency (NSA) to keep tabs on American citizens, pushed for the enactment of the Patriot Act, launched two costly wars, and more. On the issue of fighting terrorism, there is hardly a difference between the Obama and the Bush administrations. If anything, the Obama administration has intensified the covert war against terrorism, preferring to send drones, CIA agents, and special forces to places like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and more.

Those who believe in small, inexpensive, and unintrusive