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Is the Terror Threat Overhyped?

On Sunday the Los Angeles Times ran a piece by John Hopkins professor and New Republic contributing editor David Bell. It has generated a fair amount of controversy these past few days:

Has the American reaction to the attacks in fact been a massive overreaction? Is the widespread belief that 9/11 plunged us into one of the deadliest struggles of our time simply wrong? If we did overreact, why did we do so? Does history provide any insight?

Certainly, if we look at nothing but our enemies' objectives, it is hard to see any indication of an overreaction. The people who attacked us in 2001 are indeed hate-filled fanatics who would like nothing better than to destroy this country. But desire is not the same thing as capacity, and although Islamist extremists can certainly do huge amounts of harm around the world, it is quite different to suggest that they can threaten the existence of the United States.

Yet a great many Americans, particularly on the right, have failed to make this distinction. For them, the "Islamo-fascist" enemy has inherited not just Adolf Hitler's implacable hatreds but his capacity to destroy.

Last night's roundtable on Brit Hume's Special Report discussed the article. Here are a few excerpts:

HUME: This is from two days ago, on Sunday, when one, David Bell, a history professor from Johns Hopkins University wrote a piece, basically asking the question: was 9/11 really was that bad? Meaning, yes it was a terribly hideous terrorist attack, an atrocity, to be sure, but did it really and does any likely future attack from the same type of people really threaten the existence of the United States? Is it indeed an existential threat? He argues that judged in historical terms against past wars and past threats it doesn't measure up. It's a serious argument.

MORT KONDRACKE, ROLL CALL: David Bell acknowledges that these people are hate filled fanatic to would like nothing better than to destroy our country, but he says that they lack the capacity. Well one, if they got a hold of Iraq or Saudi Arabia they would have oil wealth and they could buy any weapon that they chose. Secondly, if they -- Pakistan is about one bullet away from supplying as Islamic fundamentalists with a fully blown nuclear arsenal, Pakistan has, and Iran is working on that.

HUME: You say "one bullet away," you mean the murder of...

KONDRACKE: Murder of Musharraf, yeah.

Who delivered Pakistan into the hands of extremists, who would...

KONDRACKE: Could -- he could, and then we have an existential threat and our allies...

HUME: But the argument is made -- that argument suggests that they could become an existential threat, but they're not now.

KONDRACKE: Well, but you want to fight threats in advance, you know, you don't want to wait until they develop.

LIASSON: I think what he's suggesting is that there might have been different ways to fight this threat than -- it's implied in his article that there might have been different ways...

HUME: But the core of the argument is we may be overreacting to the threat because it's not as serious as we've made it out to be...

LIASSON: I think that's the rhetoric -- some of the rhetoric -- to say it's an existential conflict, maybe the American people aren't buying that form the distraction, maybe that's one of the...

HUME: I know, but I'm talking about what he's saying. I mean, we can speculate all we want about what the American people may think about this. That argument has gone largely unchallenged, by the way, I mean, you don't here anybody saying...

LIASSON: No, but when he lays out the proportion of people killed versus the proportion of people killed in conflicts that were existential, he makes a valid point.

FRED BARNES, WEEKLY STANDARD: That's irrelevant, though. I mean, one nuclear weapon and you kill a lot more people than were killed in all those wars.

Look, this is an example of the polio fallacy. And that is that people don't get the vaccine anymore because, or a lot of people don't, because they say "well gee, nobody gets polio anymore. What do I need it for?" Well here we haven't had another serious terrorist attack, so people start saying, "well gee, maybe the threat's not that great. We don't have to do all these things like the Patriot Act and have eavesdropping and so on through wiretapping and things like that." I think this is an example of that.

But, both Mort and Mara are correct. There -- I mean, weapons of mass destruction, they exist, they're easily accessible. Saddam Hussein -- one reason we attacked Iraq and opposed him was because he had -- had them and might give them to terrorists.

LIASSON: Or so we thought.

BARNES: And he did...

HUME: Well we had had them.

BARNES: We know he had them, he used them in the past. So, I don't think it's been an overreaction. It's been a successful reaction and that's why people start to think, well maybe the threat's not that great.

The full transcript can be found here.