The Costs of Crying Wolf

Polls show that Americans no longer believe that terrorism is the greatest threat facing the United States. Indeed, when the recent London terror plot forced Americans to dump their Herbal Essence shampoo and Kiel's body lotion prior to boarding, many were outraged. Who knew that tossing your MAC lipstick was a more traumatic proposition than getting blown up over the Atlantic Ocean?

This is what President Bush calls a “pre-911 mentality.” And it's back in vogue. Multiple studies over the years have shown that steady exposure to violent television programming is desensitizing. It now appears that steady exposure to naked political posturing by government officials seeking to find electoral advantage in fighting terrorism is desensitizing Americans to what remains a serious threat. The perils of politicizing national security are becoming abundantly clear as Americans slowly slide into complacency over terrorism.

Apparently even conservative New York Times columnist John Tierney has been beaten down by the relentless drone of the permanent terrorism PR campaign. Over the weekend, Tierney decried the “hyperbolic warnings that America's 'existence' or 'way of life' is in jeopardy.” He proclaimed that the terrorism threat is overblown and that compared with past threats “al-Qaeda's terrorists are a minor problem.” To drive his point home, he quoted a statistic (from political scientist John Mueller) that the total number of Americans killed since 2001 by groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda is less than those who drowned in bathtubs during this period.

But equating an accidental death -- or tens of thousands of accidental deaths -- to terrorism is a dangerous path to start down. Even a sharp rise in bathtub drownings will not threaten civilization, but 10 major attacks in various U.S. cities will change utterly, and probably permanently, our country. And not to sound hyperbolic, but terrorism is not just about killing people; it's about destabilizing Western civilizations by keeping us in a constant state of fear. Imagine if the London terror plot had gone forward, or if a terrorist gets a hold of a nuclear weapon. It seems incredible to argue that would be a “minor problem.”

Yet many Americans are in fact, not that worried. In a recent Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll only 12 percent named terrorism as their highest priority. A July Harris poll had terrorism dead last, at 5 percent.

During the 1990s, debates raged in the national-security community about the terrorism threat, with many making similar arguments as Tierney's. Others believed that it was a monumental threat that should be given the highest priority. Didn't we see on 9-11 who won that debate?

When President Clinton launched cruise missiles against al-Qaeda training camps in 1998, one of the first questions asked of Defense Secretary William Cohen at a nationally televised Pentagon press conference was how he would respond to people who thought the military action bore “a striking resemblance to the movie Wag the Dog.” Republicans, such as Sen. Arlen Specter, jumped on the bandwagon to echo this sentiment and the media were happy to play along.

This was hardly an environment of intellectual honesty or seriousness about fighting terrorism. Perhaps people needed to see first-hand the level of destruction that an organized terrorist group could inflict on our nation. But now that we have seen it, do we really need to see it again to continue to take the threat seriously?

But people can hardly be blamed for doubting the Bush administration's warnings. They are so often so transparently political that Americans have understandably begun to view them with a jaundiced eye. In May 2004 -- six months before the presidential election -- Attorney General John Ashcroft warned that al-Qaeda could "hit hard" in the next few months and said that 90 percent of the arrangements for an attack on U.S. soil were complete. Condoleezza Rice said that the administration was worried that terrorist groups could find the approaching presidential election "too good to pass up" and that Washington was already considering measures to deter an attack.

At the time, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told the White House press corps that “Memorial Day represents the start of our summer period here in America, and it is important for all Americans to be on a heightened state of awareness and vigilance as we enter this serious threat period.” And while he seemed to be referring to the summer, he could have just as easily been referring to the beginning of campaign season, which has easily represented the greatest terrorist “threat periods” since 9-11.

When Donald Rumsfeld recently delivered a speech implying that there were appeasers among us, even some conservatives rolled their eyes in disbelief. The attack was clearly aimed at Democratic lawmakers, who not only accept the threat of terrorism but also are highly critical of the administration's lack of attention to homeland security. The reality is that if Rumsfeld is looking for people who don't believe that we face a serious threat, he can look to the American public. And then he should ask himself how and why they came to this faulty conclusion.

Kirsten A. Powers served as deputy assistant U.S. Trade Representative for public affairs in the Clinton administration and is a New York-based Democratic consultant. In addition, she writes the blog PowersPoint.

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