IF, AS string theorists tell us, ours is only one in an array of universes, perhaps in an alternate one there is an alternate United States with a political establishment committed to a “war on bathtub drowning.” Sovereign nations are invaded for their real or imagined slipping-related program activities; citizens are encouraged to seal their tubs with duct tape; and academics are given endowed seats at the most prestigious universities for holding forth on Islam’s insidious encouragement of bathing. If such a universe existed, and could observe ours, its inhabitants would have good reason to judge our society, with its fixation on terrorism, the more irrational—or so argues political scientist John Mueller in his interesting, albeit flawed, book Overblown.
The thesis that the U.S. political and media establishment vastly inflates the threat of terrorism is probably, at this point, not a great stretch for anyone anywhere left of center, though, admittedly, most political or media personalities are not anywhere left of center.
Mueller backs up this common-sense feeling with valuable data and analysis. For instance, the total number of Americans who have died in terrorist incidents since the late 1960s is about equal to the number killed by lightning, car accidents with deer, or peanut allergies. In almost any year, it’s less than the number of people who drown in bathtubs. Leave out the freak events of September 11 and toilet drownings become more lethal. The fact that terrorism is not properly evaluated as a low-risk threat, and indeed quite the opposite, leads to enormous misallocation of society’s resources and a populace distracted from its own interests.
Unfortunately Mueller’s strength at detailing the “hows” of terror-exaggeration is not matched in his explanation of the “whys.” Mueller points the finger at opportunistic politicians, Homeland Security bureaucrats, and the “terrorism industry,” but stays at this superficial level. Overblown lacks the deeper perspective of works by authors such as Noam Chomsky or Chalmers Johnson, which tie the U.S. establishment’s historical practice of threat-inflation to its broader imperial goals. This lack of perspective is also evident in the book’s section on “An Alternative Terrorism Policy,” which completely fails to identify the criminal practices of U.S. imperialism as a cause of terrorism directed “asymmetrically” against the U.S.
Overblown is a trenchant—and often drily hilarious—exposé of terrorism overreaction, but readers should look elsewhere for more fundamental critiques of the “war on terror.”