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We will defeat terrorism only when we refuse to be terrorised, says Mehdi Hasan

The threat must be put in perspective -- our civilisation's survival isn't at stake.

The threat must be put in perspective -- our civilisation's survival isn't at stake.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks, I find myself yearning for the leadership of Franklin D Roosevelt - and not just on the economy. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," FDR declaimed in his 1933 inaugural address. "Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

If there is one word that has come to define our reaction (overreaction?) to the September 2001 tragedy, it is fear. Murderous, unseen enemies lurk in the shadows, waiting to do us harm. We live in fear of the next terror attack. In May this year, a nationwide survey conducted by Suffolk University, Boston, found a majority of American voters (51 per cent) said they feared another terrorist attack on US soil in the next 12 months.

Yet these all-pervading fears of attack are irrational and unfounded. Americans, in particular, have what the political scientist John Mueller has called "a false sense of insecurity". Look at the facts. The 9/11 assaults were the last successful foreign terrorist attack on US soil. Since 2001, fewer Americans have died from international terrorism each year than have drowned in their bath.

According to state department figures, the number of US citizens killed worldwide in 2010 "as a result of incidents of terrorism" was 15 (down from 25 in 2009). In the same year, 29 Americans died after being struck by lightning. Calculations by the astronomer Alan Harris suggest that the average American is as likely to be killed by a terrorist as he or she is to be hit by an asteroid.

This isn't to dismiss the very real threat from Islamist terrorism, or to trivialise the number of innocent lives lost, but to put the threat in perspective. It isn't existential. Our civilisation's survival isn't at stake.

Threat level

The terror industry, however, is big business - especially in the US. A recent investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that federal and state governments spend about $75bn a year on domestic security.

Examples of absurd expenditures abound. How about $557,400 on rescue and commu­nications gear for the 1,500 residents of the city of North Pole, Alaska? Or the $750,000 spent on an anti-terrorism fence for a Veterans Affairs hospital on the outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina? Nebraska's Cherry County, reported the LA Times, received thousands of federal dollars for "cattle nose leads, halters and electric prods - in case terrorists decided to mount biological warfare against cows".

Does anyone other than paranoiacs believe that al-Qaeda would be interested in targeting the residents of Hicksville? Yet, since 9/11, a new breed of self-styled terrorism expert - often lacking any obvious academic credentials - has taken to the airwaves to hyperventilate about the mortal danger posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. These experts are nothing of the sort, often even mispronouncing the names of the terrorists they pontificate about. They have a vested interest in threat inflation, having profited handsomely from the so-called war on terror.

Never has the phrase "everyone's an expert" been more apt than in the debate about terrorism. Dubious characters have come forward to peddle fear and insecurity, hysteria and Islamophobia. Take Walid Shoebat, a Palestinian-American convert to conservative Christianity and self-proclaimed "terror expert", who says he was once a PLO terrorist who bombed a bank and served time in an Israeli prison. This is his claim to fame, and the basis of his supposed expertise on Islamist terrorism.

In his seminars to US law-enforcement officials, paid for by the American taxpayer, Shoebat - who has compared radical Islam with Nazism - calls for mosques and Muslim student groups in the US to be placed under surveillance. "All Islamic organisations in America should be the number-one enemy," he told a gathering of 300 police officers and sheriff's deputies in South Dakota this year.

Yet it turns out, according to a CNN investigation in July, that the Israeli police has no record of Shoebat's "bombing", nor does the bank itself. The prison where he says he was held likewise has no record of his incarceration. A cousin of Shoebat's told the TV network that his claims were made for "personal reasons".

Sober response

So, is it any wonder that there is so much misinformation spread about terrorists and the terror threat? We need a more sober, FDR-styleresponse. The time has come to ignore the fear-mongering of the terror experts, the police chiefs, the military leaders, the pundits and thepoliticians. On 11 September 2011, we must ask ourselves: what has done greater damage to our liberties, our societies, our way of life, over the past ten years? Terrorism? Or our response to it?

In a 2004 video message, Osama Bin Laden seemed delighted by the alarmist climate he had helped create inside the US - and the debilitating costs it has inflicted on the nation's economy. "All we have to do is send two mujahedin . . . to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written 'al-Qaeda'," Bin Laden declared, “in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses."

Nothing has changed. The failed Christmas 2009 plot to bomb a Northwest Airlines plane using explosives sewn into a passenger's underwear prompted an airport screening upgrade costing more than $1.6bn.

To seek absolute security is to chase a mirage. We will defeat terrorism only when we refuse to be terrorised.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11