Empty Threats: Little to Fear from the Chattering Classes


NSA Headquarters

Western intelligence services are sounding the alarm over a possible terrorist attack soon to strike Yemen or another country in the Middle East. Spying agencies noted a significant increase of “chatter” prompting the US government to close its embassy in Sana’a and advise its citizens to abandon Yemen lest they become targets. By now the US has closed no less than 22 of its embassies citing these mostly vague threats. 

Curiously enough the alarm coincided with the unveiling of the wholesale Internet spying operations run by the US National Security Agency (NSA). It would seem that NSA spies and their western minions have been intercepting mind-boggling amounts of data on any person – not just suspects – making use of an Internet connection.

It is just too good to be true for the NSA to produce a credible terrorist threat at the very moment the world is learning about the extent of its dubious, invasive and rather inefficient spying practices.

“These warnings, by now a regular feature of life, have a perfect failure record.”

Intelligence agencies, however, see things quite differently and argue, rather unconvincingly, that the early detection of threats has prevented evil-doers from carrying out their sinister plans. The NSA just can’t lose: Sound the alarm and if nothing happens, it wins. If, on the other hand, an attack does take place – a most improbable scenario – it wins as well by claiming prescience.

This is logic perverted on a scale just as grand as the digital snooping operations brought to light by NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden who has now received temporary asylum in Russia. This prompted US president Barack Obama to cancel an upcoming tête-à-tête with Vladimir Putin. That will teach those recalcitrant Russians.

It never fails to amaze how a few disgruntled people with guns and a holy book can make a nation as powerful as the US give up a significant chunk of its civil liberties. Columnist Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic Monthly recently crunched some numbers in an attempt to put the threat posed by terrorists in perspective.

In the first decade of the century, terrorists killed about 3,000 American citizens (9/11) while gun violence claimed well over 360,000 lives. Over the same period drunk-driving accidents killed almost 150,000 Americans.

Yet untold billions of dollars are being spent on charting, analysing and recording the world’s digital communications in the largely vain hope of finding a wayward terrorist posing an actual threat.

US writer and lecturer Dan Gardner, author of Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail and Why We Believe them Anyway, argues that it is not rational to part with liberties and do away with privacy in order to stay marginally safer from a threat that is over a thousand times smaller than the one suffered by commuters in the US. In 2011, 32,367 Americans died on their way to work.

While on these numbers, consider this: Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine, calculated that an American is four times more likely to be struck by a lightning bolt than by a terror attack.

It is high time we stop being captivated by vague and unspecific intelligence on terrorists and their mostly empty threats and rhetoric. The world has almost infinitely more pressing problems that need addressing.

If the US government insists, as it seems to be doing, that it is a good idea to throw billions of dollars at the elimination of a threat less likely to be fatal than a lightning bolt, then perhaps the rest of the world should consider moving on.

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