Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them
By John Mueller
Free Press, 2006, 272 pp.
In this provocative book, the noted political scientist Mueller argues that reactions to terrorism are a greater threat than terrorism itself. The scope and destructiveness of international terrorism, he contends, are limited; it is the inflation of this threat and the policy overreactions to it that impose severe costs on society. Mueller is correct to note that very few people have died in terrorist attacks, especially compared with other causes of death, such as car accidents, but the real fear of terrorism is prospective: it is focused on the possibility that an extremist network will detonate a nuclear device in a major city. Mueller acknowledges such a possibility but, taking issue with Harvard's Graham Allison and other experts, finds the obstacles to such a terrorist act formidable. In surveying encounters with past foreign threats (Pearl Harbor, Soviet communism), he sees a pattern of exaggeration, posturing, and -- after 9/11 -- a "terrorism industry" that has a vested interest in alarmism. This book will provoke a lively debate -- and to the extent it encourages an honest discussion of risk, this is to be welcomed. Moreover, Mueller's recommendations are ultimately quite sensible: since overreacting to groups such as al Qaeda plays into their hands, a long-term response to terrorism should entail patient and methodical intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security.