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Trapped in the War on Terror?


Some analysts argue that the economic and political cost of the war on terror ultimately could be harmful to the United States. But others caution that terrorism is a dangerous and long-term threat that needs to be addressed.

Less than a decade ago, securing industrial, commercial and government facilities in the United States was handled by just a few private companies. But by this year, their numbers had increased to some 67,000. Since 2003, private companies have obtained at least $130 billion worth of federal and local government contracts, to help keep America safe.

The Department of Homeland Security

The U.S. security industry was mostly shaped by the Department of Homeland Security, which was formed in 2003 with an initial annual budget of about $28 billion. For 2007, the Department’s budget is expected to be nearly $43 billion -- almost 1.5-percent of the U.S.’ gross domestic product. In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security drew up a list of about 160 potential terrorist targets in the U.S. That number has now grown to more than 300,000 - - from shopping malls and amusement parks to nuclear power plants.

Political scientist Ian Lustick, at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book: Trapped in the War on Terror says the heightening of public anxiety and bureaucratic waste after September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks have been harmful.

“The war on terror took on a life of its own because when it was said to be something equivalent to World War II and to be preventing another 9/11 everyday then every interest group, every politician had to redefine what their agenda was so that it would be needed for the war on terror because everybody wants to be patriotically involved in the war. The whole system has become caught in a vortex: ‘I’m more committed to the war on terror than you,’” says Lustick.

Lustick argues that an exaggerated response to September 11th could backfire. “Al Qaida hijacked our planes from the best transportation system in the world to knock down our buildings and attack the Pentagon. But that’s not the most serious hijacking that they accomplished. They hijacked our political system and have been using it to bleed us of resources," says Lustick. "Osama bin Laden said, ‘It is easy for us to get the United States to do whatever we want by raising our little red piece of cloth that says ‘Al-Qaida’ on it and they will send an army to anywhere in the world. And then we tie their economy in knots producing jobs and profits for their corporations, but bleeding the American economy of hundreds of billions of dollars.’”

Terrorism in the U.S.

Many experts agree that the damage terrorism can cause should be put into perspective. John Mueller is a political scientist at The Ohio State University and author of the new book: Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. He claims there isn’t significant evidence of the presence of terrorist groups on American soil.

“The FBI had a report last year, 2005, in which they pointed out that they were unable to identify a single terrorist, al-Qaida, sleeper cell in the United States after four years of very well funded sleuthing. Similar exaggerations were made after Pearl Harbor [during World War II]. The Pearl Harbor attack was a dazzling success from the Japanese standpoint, but they never pulled off anything remotely like that [during] the rest of the war. There is a tendency when something like that, very dramatic, happens we suddenly see the enemy being 20 feet tall,” says Mueller.

According to Professor Mueller, the nuclear threat during the Cold War was much more serious for the United States than terrorism is today.

“The threat presented by the Soviet Union and international communism which could have wiped out tens-of-millions of Americans with nuclear weapons was considerably greater than anything that terrorists are likely to do in their wildest imagination. Although the Soviet Union had the weapons, the likelihood that they would use them was extremely low,” says Mueller.

But other experts, including foreign policy specialist James Phillips of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, counter that the collapse of communism was largely a result of American military preparedness and strength – a lesson that applies today.

“Communism failed in part because there was a very muscular response by the U.S. government to communism in containing it, in fighting a very bloody war in Korea and later in Vietnam. Those countries that succumbed to communism paid a heavy price. It is true that the U.S. defeated communism before it came to our shores. Terrorism is a different kind of threat, but it is important to prevent it from coming inside the U.S. again,” says Phillips.

The Al-Qaida Threat

Phillips points out that the paramount role of government is to defend the nation against attack. But some analysts warn that defending America, with its open borders and ports, and still vulnerable nuclear power plants and chemical factories remains an inviting target for al-Qaida and other terrorists.

International relations specialist Stephen Van Evera at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida still poses a credible threat. “For the first time, the United States may face an adversary that has possible access to weapons of mass destruction and is not deterrable. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had oodles [large numbers] of nuclear weapons, but it was deterrable. Al-Qaida, most people would agree, is going to use weapons of mass destruction if obtains them, but it can’t be deterred,” says Van Evera.

Professor Van Evera and many other experts warn that underestimating the terrorist threat could have severe consequences.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.