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Reason and Terror

Has 9/11 made it hard to think straight?

Diego Gambetta

8 How do you go about finding a buyer for eight bars of enriched uranium on the black market? In the late 1990s this question taxed the brains of 11 Italian mobsters, a coalition of Sicilian, Roman and Calabrian criminals. The bars in question were steel cylinders, 90 centimeters long. Each contained 200 grams of uranium. They were produced in the labs of General Atomic in San Diego and in 1971 were sent as a gift to Kinshasa, to be used as nuclear fuel in a program ironically known as Atoms for Peace. According to Captain Roberto Ferroni of the Rome custom police, "If they were blown up in Villa Borghese the center of Rome would become uninhabitable for a century." The bars disappeared from Kinshasa in 1997, when Mobutu's regime was overturned, and they probably traveled with him to France. They resurfaced a year later in the Italian mobsters' hands.

In the spring of 1998 the gang thought they had at last found a buyer: someone known as "the accountant," who introduced himself as the emissary of an Arab country and the Islamic Jihad. The accountant was in reality an undercover agent. The Italian police, while investigating the mobsters for other crimes, had intercepted their telephone conversations, heard them talking about "nuclear stuff," and decided to investigate the matter. The agent succeeded in persuading the mobsters that his credentials were genuine. "In fact," says Captain Ferroni, "our sellers did not lose their composure. On the contrary, the credibility of the Arab world, which is always hunting for nuclear material, convinced them that [our man] was not a trap." The agent brought with him an engineer who tested one of the bars and found that it did indeed contain uranium. The police then pretended to transfer a sum of 12 million dollars to a Swiss bank account after bargaining down the asking price by half. On the day they had agreed to complete the transaction, the mafiosi showed up-but they cheated. They came with a bar that was not the tested one, and failed to deliver the other seven bars. But the agent's cover was blown, and the police had to arrest them. The current location of the seven bars remains unknown.1 They may be hidden in a stable in the mountains of Calabria or Sicily, which should perhaps be added to the axis of evil.

As this case reminds us, the threat of weapons of mass destruction, or some amateur variant of them, is real, even if the coalition of the willing could not find them in Iraq. In June 2003 Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, the British internal security and intelligence agency, said, "We are faced with a realistic possibility of some form of unconventional attack that could include chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack." She added, however, that "before we become unduly alarmist, it is worth noting that the bomb and the suicide bomber remain the most effective tool in the terrorist arsenal."

Such caution is unusual in the current political environment but makes very good sense. Terrorism and the "war" against it are now firmly lodged at the top of national and international political agendas, but there are good reasons not to become alarmist-even after September 11.

First, 9/11 is a wild outlier among terrorist acts generally and also with respect to other actions attributed to al Qaeda. Moreover, the perpetrators themselves seem to be far out on the spectrum of dangerous individuals. While there is no dearth of suicide-mission volunteers, very few people share Mohamed Atta's traits: highly skilled, methodically inclined, and ready to die. He acted and succeeded both as an organizer and as a perpetrator, unlike most other suicide missions in which different people hold these two roles. The lucidity and composure required by an organizer stand in contrast with the trance-like state needed to go on a suicide mission. Atta, the real-life approximation of a James Bond villain, was able to square that circle. Moreover, the attackers did not use WMDs and were extremely lucky not to be detected in time.

Furthermore, almost all the scary cases "uncovered" since 9/11-and widely discussed by politicians and the press-have turned out to be false alarms. In his February 2003 United Nations speech, Colin Powell mentioned 16 North African men arrested in Spain as an example of the links between Osama bin Laden and Baghdad. Now released, they have sued Jose María Aznar, the former Spanish Prime Minister, for slander. Even the case of Jose Padilla-the U.S. citizen arrested in May 2002 and held as an enemy combatant for allegedly planning to steal radioactive material to make a "dirty bomb"-has not yet produced criminal charges. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that he must now be freed from military custody.

Third, the several failed and foiled attacks reveal that the terrorists use low-level technology, and exploit unbalanced individuals, nothing like Atta. Remember Richard Reid, the British man who tried to blow up a plane by exploding his shoes. Or the four Moroccan men arrested in Rome with a map of the aqueduct and four kilos of "potassium ferrocyanide," described by experts as a pretty harmless substance when distributed through water. Or the five Algerian men arrested in London in early 2003 allegedly trying to produce ricin, a highly poisonous substance extracted from castor oil for which there is no antidote (it recently appeared in Senator Bill Frist's office). Tony Blair said the find showed that "this danger is present and real and with us now-and its potential is huge." But the quantities of ricin found were tiny-so tiny, in fact, that they can no longer be found. Producing ricin with what turned out to be little more than a "chemistry set" is not easy, and last October the prosecution charges had to be scaled down to the attempted rather than the actual production of a chemical weapon. The only attacks with unconventional weapons anywhere in the world so far remain the mysterious anthrax case in the United States and the March 1995 spread of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult whose leader has just been sentenced to death.

The dilemma about how threatening the terrorists really are is epitomized by the Ohio truck driver who was allegedly plotting with leaders of al Qaeda to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge by using blowtorches to cut the suspension cables of the bridge: "It's a reminder," The New York Times wrote, "of why American authorities in the 1990's found it hard to take terrorist plots seriously, even after a number had been uncovered-it all just seemed pathetically amateurish and unthreatening." Yet, the same article concludes, "now we know what 19 men with box cutters can do, so we can't dismiss a truck driver with a blowtorch." To avoid becoming alarmist does not mean minimizing the threat and becoming complacent. Terrorism by traditional means can cause very serious damage, as the Madrid train bombing on March 11, 2004, tragically shows. As for attacks on the scale of 9/11, they could get lucky twice.

The importance of establishing the real size and kind of threat we are facing remains crucial for fighting it effectively-hitting the right targets, picking the right means, avoiding overreactions. It is also important because the bigger and nastier the threat is (or is thought to be) the harsher are the infringements to civil liberties that can be justified and accepted by the public. One way to defend our liberties is to be alert to the forces that could exaggerate and distort the threat. As I shall argue, there are lots of those. And if I am right, the tendencies to exaggeration may well enjoy a long life, well beyond the current administrations in Britain and the United States.

I am not thinking of the clumsy cases of deliberate exaggeration by both the U.S. and the U.K. governments, especially in connection with the Iraq war. Deliberate exaggeration-asserting that threats are greater than one believes them to be-is a serious problem, but it is also easier to understand and expose.2 Here I am concerned with more insidious processes which-under a terrorist threat and over and above the policymakers' cold-blooded intentions to deceive the public for their selfish reasons-can encourage exaggerated fears about the threat posed by terrorism. The 9/11 attack produced a momentous and potentially lasting shift in mindset, which includes both cognitive biases and aspects of dubious rationality. In assessing the right mix of caution and concern, we need to keep both of these-as well as concerns about deliberate exaggeration-firmly in mind.

Cognitive Biases

Consider the psychological effect on everyone (not only policymakers) when a disaster occurs. Low-probability nasty events suddenly appear on people's radars and stay there: they become salient. People expect more attacks and worry about being victims. When the snipers struck in Virginia, people were terrified even though their chances of dying in a car accident were much greater than being shot by the snipers. In a September 2003 poll, "two-thirds of the 976 New Yorkers questioned said they were very concerned about another attack in New York, slightly more than felt that way a year ago." People also worry about other kinds of massive attacks because the discontinuity in scale of 9/11 with respect to previous terrorist acts inclines us to infer that anything is possible.

But when something of the caliber of 9/11 only just fails to happen we remain cool. On Christmas Eve of 1994 four Algerian GIA terrorists hijacked a French plane in Algiers. The hijackers wanted to be flown to Paris, but because of insufficient fuel the captain landed in Marseilles, where French elite troops stormed the plane and killed the hijackers. Charles Pasqua, the French Interior Minister, claimed that the terrorists planned to fly the passenger jet to Paris in a suicide operation, either exploding it over Paris or ramming it into the Eiffel Tower. No one took notice and Pasqua was derided for exaggerating the event.

Suppose the 19 9/11 hijackers had been stopped-a plausible outcome given the information available to security agencies. 9/11 could have been foiled through a set of coincidences and actions unrelated to the nature and size of the overall terrorist threat. The capture of the hijackers would not have reduced the current threat at all, but, as the French case shows, our perception of it would be infinitely more optimistic.

One could object and argue that by succeeding on 9/11 the hijackers emboldened old and new terrorists alike and encouraged them to try more large-scale attacks, so the current threat is greater now than it would have been otherwise. But at the same time the massive security response to 9/11, especially in the U.S. and other NATO countries, has probably decreased the danger, despite our appreciation of the threat becoming so much more intense. When thinking about low-probability bad events we are easily trapped between two undesirable extremes-before, we do not worry about them; after, we worry about them too much. 3

Given the huge political costs, if an attack of the scale of 9/11 were to be repeated it would also makes sense for policymakers to be overzealous in issuing public warnings. Before a terror event of 9/11 magnitude there is an interestin playing threats down-no one wants to be seen as a Cassandra, upsetting citizens and the economy. But 9/11 caused a seismic change. Now governments can get more support by playing the threat up and issuing constant warnings. If nothing happens it will be seen as a result of their policing efforts; if something does happen, they cannot be accused of insufficient vigilance. Politically too it is rational, albeit in a narrowly self-interested sense, to exaggerate the threat, at least until nothing happens for long enough to make further warnings sound unduly alarmist.

The Question of Rationality

The events of 9/11 led American policymakers to shape a dramatically new strategic outlook and response. As many commentators pointed out, it was not obvious that the right response was to declare that the United States was in a war on terror. As Nicholas Lemann wrote in The New Yorker in September 2002, "That phrase . . . framed the way people think about how the United States is reacting to the September 11th attacks so completely, that the idea that declaring and waging war on terror was not the sole, inevitable, logical consequence of the attacks just isn't in circulation." Two further grand and threatening ideas were attached to this so-called war: that (according to the White House) "the war against terrorists of global reach is a global enterprise of uncertain duration," and that 9/11 was unprecedented both in itself and in the further threats it heralded ("different than at any time in the history of the world," Donald Rumsfeld said in an interview with Larry King). Moreover, Rumsfeld has suggested that the real situation regarding terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is worse than the facts show. His comments at a June 2002 press conference sharply elucidate the dramatic mindset shift that followed 9/11:

All of us in this business read intelligence information. And we read it daily and we think about it and it becomes, in our minds, essentially what exists. And that's wrong. It is not what exists. . . . I found that . . . there are very important pieces of intelligence information that countries . . . did not know; [they did not know] some significant event for two years after it happened, for four years after it happened, for six years after it happened, in some cases 11 and 12 and 13 years after it happened. Now what is the message there? The message is: there are known "knowns." There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

This reassessment of the threat as unprecedented, very large, and ridden with unknown unknowns gelled in the doctrine of preemptive war (from the White House, with my emphasis): "The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction-and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively."4 The stress on the risks of inaction and preemptive attacks imply that wars can now be waged without a clear casus belli. A threat does not now need to manifest itself or even be proven imminent to motivate a war.

This approach, although far from obvious, is an understandable response to the trauma of 9/11. It involves a set of beliefs that were arrived at by reasoning that we can recognize. Rather than being a result of cognitive biases, it is an intentional way of framing the situation and turning it into a political strategy. But we need to consider two questions about the rationality of this mindset: the first concerns the process of arriving at it; the second concerns the consequences of adopting it.

Justified? Is the strategic mindset warranted by the evidence? Is this, for instance, really a war, and a global one at that? Is our world so dominated by unknown unknowns so as to justify acting with the fear of them in mind? Were we just myopic idiots not to think in these terms before?

Those beliefs would be far more difficult to entertain had 9/11 not occurred. But is their formation a rational response to the attack? The effect on military and political strategy caused by the shock and emotions after 9/11 have been underestimated, while it is highly plausible to think that they colored the cognitive processes that led to the new strategic mindset. The cocktail of notions that were chosen-evil, war, global, unprecedented, unknown unknowns-does not strike me as the product of cool reflection. After all, never before in contemporary U.S. history have policymakers come so close to themselves becoming the victims of terrorism-Rumsfeld was at the Pentagon the day of the attack-and it is understandable if their response to this trauma has contained elements of paranoia.

Furthermore, the cognitive dissonance experienced by someone who, feeling strong and safe, is suddenly hit by an attack of the scale of 9/11 is extremely intense. One way to reduce the dissonance is by attributing special powers to the culprits-only an evil alien monster can do this to us. Another is to seek out any opportunity to reestablish one's self-confidence by proving how tough one really is. While this generates the aggressive energy required to search and hit the real culprit, it can easily overshoot and lead one to feel justified in making do by hitting a "placebo" culprit. The difference between contemplating preemptive war and jumping at shadows can become perilously thin.

I cannot see 9/11 as evidence that the current mindset is appropriate and rational. Although cloaked in the semblance of reasonable argument, the White House's national-security strategy, and the thinking that went into it, seems profoundly shaped by, indeed incomprehensible without, the devastating emotional turbulence caused by 9/11. "The suspicion remains," as Martin Amis wrote, "that America is not behaving rationally-that America is behaving like someone still in shock."

Consequences? As Rumsfeld admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee, "The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder. We acted because we saw the existing evidence in a new light through the prism of our experience on September 11" (my emphasis). But how much should we trust that prism as a guide for action? Does the new strategic mindset promote or undermine our ability to work out rationally what is and what is not to be done?

There are several reasons for doubts on this score. To appreciate them, consider the preemptive-war mindset: you believe that you are at war, a war of global scope and uncertain duration, against an enemy you sort of know but also against unknown unknowns, a war in which the dangers are unprecedented and inaction is so risky as to justify preemptive attacks. How might this combination of ideas induce irrationality?

First, it leads to acting on the most threatening possible interpretations of the evidence. If there is any evidence of threat, one is meant to assume it is valid, even if the apparent weight of the contrary indicators is greater.5 A faint whiff of a threat may now be enough to launch a preemptive war. Fine, but what do you do next? If one is to respond to any evidence of threat, apart from the obvious financial constraints of doing so consistently over all possible threats, one is likely to find oneself with lots of options. The idea that we are up against unknown unknowns if taken literally is trivial. But as a guide for action it is dangerously erratic. Nothing in it suggests a way to choose among alternative courses of action.

Such perplexity provides a magnet for those who for whatever reason or passion nurture strong views on the value of doing A rather than B. Ideologues, expatriates, Leo Strauss devotees, economic lobbies, Likud supporters-each of the forces that pushed for the war had their own reasons to attack Iraq, some noble and some less so, but none have anything to do with fighting terrorism. If lobbies and conspiracies had an effect on deciding the war on Iraq, this was because the new strategic mindset was so manipulable. It attracted reasoning that was orthogonal to the central issue.

Second, when there are multiple courses of action and one feels under pressure to act, whatever the cost, strong believers in doing A or B develop a sectarian mentality to support their beliefs because the evidence itself is too inconclusive to do the work. They congregate with like-minded individuals and become exposed to the perils of groupthink and incestuous amplification, which, according to an article in Jane's Defence Weekly, occurs when "one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation."

Third, people with set beliefs are prone to wishful thinking and wishful reading of the evidence. The many cases in which shaky evidence was sold to the public have not just been ruses concocted by spin doctors to win over public opinion. Their incompetence was too staggering to be that, and they were exposed as fabrications or inept misinterpretations with jaw-dropping rapidity. While some of the evidence for war may have been intentionally "sexed up" for public consumption, and while the stress on WMDs was intensified to win over the UN and gain a semblance of legal justification for war under international law, there was a genuine fervor to believe in at least some of it. How else can one explain the readiness to believe in exiles, for instance? This led to the belief that the Iraqis would welcome the U.S. as liberators, which in turn led to an underestimation of the post-war difficulties. No heed was paid to Machiavelli's prescient warning about exiles:

It ought to be considered how vain are the faith and promises of those who find themselves deprived of their country. For, as to their faith, it has to be borne in mind that anytime they can return to their country by other means than yours, they will leave you and look to the other, notwithstanding whatever promises they had made you. As to their vain hopes and promises, such is the extreme desire in them to return home, that they naturally believe many things that are false and add many others by art, so that between those they believe and those they say they believe, they fill you with hope, so that relying on them you will incur expenses in vain, or you undertake an enterprise in which you ruin yourself. . . . A Prince, therefore, ought to go slowly in undertaking an enterprise upon the representations of an exile, for most of the times he will be left either with shame or very grave injury. (my emphasis)

Scant evidence on the one side was taken as enough evidence to wage a war, while a lot of evidence of the serious troubles that a war could cause was ignored. The response was at once overly pessimistic and overly optimistic.

The rationality problems with the current strategic mindset are further revealed by considering the view of the "enemy." From the White House again: "The United States of America is fighting a war against terrorists of global reach. The enemy is not a single political regime or person or religion or ideology. The enemy is terrorism-premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents." The language used in this description is bizarre. First, it focuses on the means, terrorism, rather than on the agents who use them, as if after the attack on Pearl Harbor one had thought the threat was coming from bombing aviators rather than from the Japanese army. Next, it pretends to make distinctions only to bypass them and make do with vague abstractions: terrorism and a generic set of nameless terrorists of global reach. This threateningly grand portrait of the enemy has become embodied in both media and political discourse by one name-Al Qaeda-that now stands for terrorism as McDonald's does for hamburgers and Cosa Nostra for organized crime.

Is this portrait accurate? Evidence from cautious observers suggests a much more fragmented picture that includes a host of nationalist and separatist causes and loose networks rather than a global octopoid conspiracy. But the portrait is perversely creative. It fosters the automatic interpretation of any terrorist action as the fruit of the same tree. As in Sicily, where every murder used to be attributed to the mafia, doing wonders for its reputation, now every terrorist act is attributed to al Qaeda. Even in the face of murky evidence of authorship, bin Laden's hand has been seen in every attack since 9/11-in Kuwait, Bali, Kenya, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere. "Bin Laden and al-Qaida reinforce this erroneous view by applauding every anti-western attack, no matter how heinous or ineffective," wrote a columnist in the Toronto Sun, and a report in an Arab newspaper even gave a terrorist group with connections to al Qaeda credit for the accidental East Coast blackout of August 2003 ("The soldiers of God have darkened the lives of the Americans," a member was quoted as saying).

An important analytical distinction is commonly overlooked in thinking about "the enemy." The truth about a state of affairs that is not easily observable may be known to some agents and not to others. This is the asymmetric case. How much players reveal to each other is subject to their strategic considerations. Soviet defense strategies were of this kind. The job of spies was to uncover the secret but observable facts about those strategies. The terrorists, too, may know what they want, what their plans are, and what weapons they can count on-but only up to a point.

In the inscrutable case, the overall truth about a state of affairs is not known by anyone. A situation such as this arose with late-19th-century anarchists and is now back with al Qaeda. There are parallels with the mafia, too, which for a long time was a threat hard to identify, quantify, and classify-and whose organization was affected (positively for them) by the image projected on it by outsiders.

If communications between terrorists are limited by the need for secrecy, and their organization is fragmented, each terrorist cell knows only what it does or plans to do. Yet each cell finds it hard to know how many other cells there are, what exactly they are up to, whether they are genuine, how determined they are, whether they are the authors of a certain attack. Many al Qaeda–inspired terrorists may not even know whether bin Laden is alive or simply being portrayed as such by close associates riding on his repute.

The terrorists themselves find out what the situation is through the media. So the common view may encourage the reality it claims to reflect by renewing the courage and determination of local groups. They feel stronger and more important than they thought they were. Every terrorist group benefits from being seen as part of a larger network, even if it is not or not yet, and from every terrorist act regardless of whether the group had any part in it. Anyone who explodes a bomb anywhere in the world is now seen as an enemy of the United States and can take pride in that. Local conflicts are raised to a global level. Terrorist acts that could be dealt with locally by vigorous policing become far more effective in striking fear when the perpetrators are seen as part of a worldwide conspiracy. Once the brand "al Qaeda" is firmly etched, it does the work for others, and others can do the work for it.

Even a member of the Italian Red Brigades, Nadia Desdemona Lioce, recently released a document from prison praising the Twin Towers attack and claiming that "the Arab and Islamic masses are the natural ally of the metropolitan proletariat." If one is in the business of maximizing terror it is worth twisting even the most distant political agenda to fit the powerful brand. Terrorist groups hitherto utterly unrelated to the cause of Bin Laden are joining in. There is what we may call a "brand-wagon effect."

"Unite and rule" is not a rational strategy in conflict. Yet the U.S. view of the identity of the enemy amounts to doing just that. One can search for a rationale-for instance claim that this view of the enemy is only peddled publicly to give a simplified focus to the fight, to rally the troops as it were. Yet it also reduces cognitive dissonance by attributing special powers to one's attackers, and the results may play right into the terrorists' hands.


While "in many ways America's obsession with terrorism since September 11 is an echo of its obsession with communism fifty years ago," as H.D.S. Greenway noted in The New York Review of Books in September 2003, there is a crucial difference that can make matters worse: the fall of terrorism is not as easily observable as that of communism. How can one be sure that a secret entity has disappeared, especially if the entity is loosely organized and its membership of uncertain size and only identifiable by ethnic or religious features shared by millions of people? Who has enough universal credibility to stand up and proclaim convincingly that the mafia or al Qaeda is dead? And who will stop scores of actors with disparate agendas from grouping and regrouping under its wings to ride on its reputation? The obsession with terrorism is in danger of persisting ad infinitum.

One would hope that the intelligence services can square the circle between over- and underestimation, tell us what the real risks are, who are the enemies, and make the unknowns known. Yet there is growing evidence that even well-meaning spies can incur all sorts of troubles, especially under post-9/11 pressures. An increase in the demand for secret information creates an increase in supply, but the supply of inaccurate information grows faster than that of accurate information. All sorts of people will sell you all sorts of information out of greed, revenge, or strategic manipulation. Next, an increase in the amount of raw information gathered creates congestion at the analysis level, the quality and size of which cannot be improved quickly-consider for instance the dearth of analysts who know Arabic. Third, the fear of mistakes leads agents to pass on poorly filtered information, if it is filtered at all: let the guys the next level up deal with this. The congestion climbs the ladder. And the higher the level reached, the busier the people are, and the more likely they are to have a political agenda.

Furthermore, the secret services cannot know the full picture because there isn't a stable truth out there that we can find out, and the ways in which we go about trying to find out may affect it perverse ways-through infiltration, for instance, which can yield the best human intelligence but also go so easily astray. They got many things wrong during the Cold War, when there was something clear, observable and centralized to spy on, so imagine how much harder it is to get something clear in this nearly inscrutable case. They also got many more overestimates of the Soviet threats than they got underestimates.6

Seasoned politicians know very well that intelligence reports should not be trusted blindly and cannot replace political and diplomatic hard-thinking. "In my early days," said the former British foreign secretary, Lord Howe, while giving evidence to the Scott arms-to-Iraq inquiry in the U.K. in 1996, "I was naive enough to get excited about intelligence reports. Many look, at first sight, to be important and interesting and significant and then when we check them they are not even straws in the wind. They are cornflakes in the wind." His successor, Lord Hurd, remarked, "There is nothing particularly truthful about a report simply because it is a secret one. People sometimes get excited because a report is secret and they think that therefore it has some particular validity. It is not always so in my experience." Yet in times of terror, that wisdom is easily forgotten.

Now combine the tendency of secret services to overestimate threats with the nature of secret organizations, which once established become hard to declare extinct. Add a sprinkle of unknown unknowns, and what we have are multiple forces jointly ensuring that the al Qaeda terrorist threat will persist for years to come.

To have one's mind hijacked daily by the fear of terrorism is surely better than to be the victim of a real hijacking, but we do not want to be scared unduly, and dim our lives as a result. We also do not want the political agenda to be hijacked by a peril, which, while real and fearsome, should not eclipse the many others that may be still more important: AIDS, for example, will kill a thousand times more people than terrorists will ever kill. And while we may be prepared to put up with some infringements on our civil liberties, we can do without those that come merely from overestimating the threat. As the social scientist Jon Elster told me, "Traditionally, liberties could be overridden only in the case of a ‘clear and present danger.' Now it seems as if they can be overridden if the danger, although far from clear, is sufficiently large." And if we work on the principle that we do not know what we do not know, anything can look large enough to merit the intrusion of the authorities and the trampling of liberty.

The perils that the terrorists pose to our lives and liberties lie as much in the Western governments' response as in the damage they can directly cause. We should of course distrust politicians who lie and exaggerate the facts to suit their agendas. But the questionable rationality of the post-9/11 mindset and of the strategic approach it has induced-which may well outlast the Bush administration-poses far more serious and consequential problems for all of us than propaganda or low-level conspiracies. <

Diego Gambetta is a professor of sociology and an Official Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.


1 Captain Ferroni says: "The man who could have taken us to those bars, Domenico Stilitano, refuses to speak. It is not in his interest. On the 11 of October [2001] he was sentenced to 4 years and 6 months as the new antiterrorism laws are not yet applicable and the traffic of strategic material is still considered, as it were, a minor crime" (La Repubblica, November 8, 2001).

2 For an account, see John B. Judis and Spencer Ackerman, "The First Casualty," The New Republic, June 30, 2003. See also Glen Rangwala ( for a collection of British examples.

3 For a discussion of other "social amplification" effects in the assessment and perception of the risks related to terrorism see Paul Slovic, "Terrorism as Hazard: A New Species of Trouble," Risk Analysis 22, 3 (2002): 425-26.

4 "Given the disrepute attached to the idea of 'preventive' war, the Bush administration prefers to talk about 'preemptive' war. There is indeed a difference between the two concepts. 'Preemptive' war refers to a direct, immediate, specific threat to the US that must be crushed at once; in the words of the Department of Defense manual, 'an attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent.' 'Preventive' war refers to potential, future, therefore speculative threats" (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The New York Review of Books, October 23, 2003).

5 See Richard K. Betts, 1978, "Analysis, War and Decision: Why Intelligence Failures Are Inevitable," World Politics 31, 1, 61-89, p. 73.

6 Michael Herman, Intelligence Power in Peace and War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 244.

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.

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