This week terrorism continued its descent from the greatest, scariest threat known to man to its proper place in the order of things: A bloody tactic that is as old as man and that is declining in frequency as most other forms of violence are.
The National Counterterrorism Center's annual report for 2011 was released on Tuesday and what it points to is a less violent (though still plenty violent) world. Total "terrorist" attacks fell 12 percent from the previous year and are down 29 percent from 2007, which the center says is a five year low. There were over 10,000 attacks classified by the government as terrorism across the world last year, claiming 12,500 lives. None of them were in the US, and three-quarters of the fatalities were in just four countries: Afghanistan (3,353), Iraq (3,063), Pakistan (2,033), and Somalia (1,101).
The cost in American lives? The report says 17 American "private citizens" were killed in terrorist incidents last year, 15 in Afghanistan and one each in Jerusalem and in Iraq. Though the report doesn't say, it's safe to assume the US citizens killed in Afghanistan were mostly aid workers or private contractors. Not to say they deserved what happen to them, but that these were people who placed themselves in a war zone (much as reporters do) fully aware of the risks. Trouble didn't come looking for them. The number of American's killed in terrorist attacks in 2010? 15.
As Micah Zenko points out, between 2000 and 2010 an average of 29 US citizens were killed each year by falling televisions, dressers, and other household furnishings. Yet we haven't declared war on the killer flat-screens rampaging through the heartland.
To be sure, terrorism is declining from a high base, thanks to the surging use of the tactic in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 2002 and 2003 US-led invasions of the two countries. Last year, the US military presence in Iraq was mostly about packing up and leaving, with far fewer patrols or offensives. Iraq, still the second most terrorism plagued country in the world by the US reckoning, saw attacks fall sharply last year. There were 13,600 people killed in terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2007, and that number fell to 3,654 by 2009 and to 3,063 last year.
And then there are issues with how "terrorism" is defined.
The word "Mexico," for instance, appears nowhere in the US report. Mexico had over 13,000 drug-related killings last year, and many of them targeted judges, cops, or citizens who had stood up to drug traffickers. High profile massacres, including leaving the bodies of the dead swinging from busy highway overpasses, were often designed to frighten populations into staying out of the drug dealer's way. The ultimate interests is financial, rather than political, but the tactic is much the same.
Is it time to start thinking about spending less on counterterrorism?
Certainly, part of the safety US citizens enjoy has had to do with the steps taken by the Bush and Obama administrations since 2001. In the past year, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan, and Abu Yayha al-Libi, an important cleric for Al Qaeda, was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan in just the past week. Vast sums have been poured into everything from airport security to intelligence. The decade since 9/11 was the longest ten-year stretch without a major terrorist attack on US soil since the 1960s as $1 trillion was poured into various initiatives.
The panicked warnings of politicians after the shock of 9/11 (former New York mayor and self-appointed terrorism expert Rudy Guiliani said in 2005 "Any one of these security experts, including myself, would have told you on Sept. 11, 2001, we're looking at dozens and dozens and multiyears of attacks like this") turned out to be driven more by fear than reason.
So one argument is, the money we're spending is working so we should keep on spending it. Perhaps. But at what other costs?
Last year, John Mueller of Ohio State and Mark G. Stewart of Australia's University of Newcastle, coauthored a paper looking at the costs and benefits of counterterrorism spending. What they found should fill any fiscally conservative politicians heart with glee: Based on our spending, we're grossly overestimating the risks of terrorism on US soil.
"We find that enhanced expenditures have been excessive: to be deemed cost-effective in analyses that substantially bias the consideration toward the opposite conclusion, they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day," they write. "Although there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue, this does not relieve politicians and bureaucrats of the fundamental responsibility of informing the public of the limited risk that terrorism presents and of seeking to expend funds wisely."