ISIS, US Policy, And Feeding The Bogeyman

In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of America’s War Against the Islamic StateStephen Walt supplies us the following pull-quote:

What is needed is not a single presidential speech, but rather a sustained, all-out effort by top U.S. officials to remind their fellow citizens how safe they actually are. One often hears that fear is inherently irrational and that such a campaign would never work, but how do we know until someone tries? By refusing to tell the truth about the actual (very low) level of risk, presidents and other officials cede the ground to threat-mongers and guarantee that the public will overreact to the rare but dramatic events that do occur.

We are used by now to those statistics that make note of how many deaths are caused by causes other than terrorism: drunk driving, falling off a ladder, snakebite etc. As Walt notes, “the odds that an American will be killed by a terrorist are about one in 4 million each year.” Numbers though, have always had little effect in assuaging irrational fears–as generations of scared flyers will attest. (Perhaps an even better example is parents anxious about their children being abducted, an extremely rare and improbable event. They really should be far more concerned about their children getting run over by a reckless driver while crossing a street.) So what will work?

The ‘sustained, all-out’ part of Walt’s prescription is crucial, of course. It is not enough to offer assurances of safety after a deadly incident of some kind; the overwhelming likelihood that the average American citizen will not meet a violent death at the hands of terrorists bears repetition ad nauseam (via a variety of modalities.) After all, if similar repetition can enhance the truth value of a lie, then why not that of a truth?

So why are such reassurances not made more often, more emphatically?

‘Top US officials’ are ‘threat-mongers.’ The latter are not just unhinged presidential candidates–Republican ones–looking to cash in on panicked voters. ‘Top US officials’ are not modest types unwilling to talk up their success in containing ‘terror threats’–rather, when they do slay a dragon or two, they make sure to tell us just how dangerous it was, and just how difficult it was to bring it down. Homeland Security folk, Pentagon top brass, the Secretary of Defense–these ‘top US officials’ are all too happy, when it suits them, to cycle through the rainbow of threat alerts, to speak knowingly of dangerous matters that cannot be disclosed, of lurking menace somewhere out there, waiting only for our guard to slip so that they may sneak across our threshold and slit our throats while we sleep. Budgets and jobs–as Walt notes–depend on such alarmist rhetoric. Well, two–if not the entire Republican candidate field–can play at that game.

The bogeyman of the external threat is not an easily contained genie. This one, having been fed and nurtured for so long, has brought forth its own benighted, coiffed spawn.

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