Is the terrorist threat overhyped?

government have not given up the fight, though (and the support Representative Ron Paul received in the Republican primaries in 2008, and his decision to run again, are but one indication).

This brings us to the issue of cognitive dissonance. How do small-government advocates square their beliefs in smaller, inexpensive, and less intrusive government with the need to take a range of actions to thwart the terrorist threat?

They do what psychologists said they would do: they define the problem away. Rather than support a broad, expensive, and demanding government action to counter the threat of terrorism – such support would create a cognitive dissonance with their beliefs about the role of government — these small-government advocates argue that the threat does not exist, or that it is greatly exaggerated. Since the threat does not exist or is over-hyped, there is no need for the government to undertake expensive and intrusive actions, and there is no need for small-government advocates to change their beliefs. In this way they maintain cognitive harmony rather the grapple with the tensions of cognitive dissonance.

What we said above about small-government advocates is unfair to them, and is a bit of a caricature we drew to illustrate the point. In reality, there are serious people who raise thoughtful questions about the nature and scope of the terrorist threat to Western societies. This first group of critics of current policies is joined by others who belong to a second group: 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.

The analysts, scholars, and writers who belong in these two groups perform a valuable service: they keep government honest. Those who believe that the terrorist threat is real, and that the consequences of terrorist actions dire, should not be given a free ride. They should be made to justify their assumptions – and then be made to justify the expensive and intrusive policies they recommend.

Such service is offered by Benjamin Friedman in his article “Managing Fear: The Politics of Homeland Security” (Political Science Quarterly 126, no. 1 [spring 2011]: 77-106).

Friedman, a doctoral candidate in political science at MIT and a Research Fellow in Defense and Homeland Security at the libertarian Cato Institute, makes four arguments in his cogent and well-written article: first, the terrorist threat is exaggerated; second, the American society is not as susceptible to disruption by terrorist actions because it is robust and sturdy; third, there are psychological reasons why people exaggerate the threat of terrorism; fourth, there are political reasons why political leaders both fan and over-hype the threat of terrorism rather than use their power to calm an edgy and nervous population by telling people the truth.

On Monday, I’ll deal in more detail with Friedman’s arguments about the threat terrorism pose. Here I will just summarize the arguments he makes about the sturdiness of the American society and why terrorist acts, even if they do take place, will not cause the massive, debilitating damage supporters of large homeland security budget say they will:

First, the United States has mature, strong liberal institutions which do not offer incentives for U.S. citizens to embrace terrorism and violence (unlike the situation in oppressive societies, in which violence is almost the only way available to citizenry to oppose the regime). Homegrown terrorism has been, and remains, a marginal issue in the United States.

Second, the U.S. economy and governmental capacity limit the consequences of any terrorist action. The U.S. economy and government are not weak or brittle, but rather robust and sturdy. Most natural disasters in the United States do not cause even a fraction of the death and damage similar events cause in other countries. Even 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina have not had a meaningful affect on the national economy.

Third, economic trends – the move from a manufacturing economy to a service economy – make attacks on the American economy less effective, and damage more localized and easy to recover from.

“These U.S. attributes limit the risk that terrorism pose here,” Friedman says.

I do not agree with everything Friedman says, and on Monday I will discuss what I take to be his too-benign a depiction of the nature of the threat the United States is facing. Still, Friedman’s article is engaging and thought-provoking. I would make it a required reading at DHS – and in Congress.

Ben Frankel is editor of the Homeland Security NewsWire