Accuracy in Media

In a forum hosted by the CATO Institute on May 25, 2010, libertarian author Ben Friedman and Ohio State University professor John Mueller argued that the American public’s panic over terrorism and homeland security has cost taxpayers trillions of wasted dollars.

Ben Friedman, author of the book Terrorizing America, claims that Americans, as “cognitive misers,” overestimate the possibility of harm from terrorism. This overestimation causes panic, which then is used by politicians to alarm the public even more. Friedman argued that “because this is [a] democracy, [the] public demand for overreaction…causes” the creation of new unneeded homeland security programs. He claimed that “one such overreaction was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which we are now stuck with.”

Friedman contends that the current system needs a mechanism which balances economic concerns with homeland security, and that “we need to build this mechanism…into the executive branch [and] we need to do it more in homeland security.” He warned of the risk of what he called “security theater” or “false security,” where there is a show of force that, he avers, solidifies American citizen’s terrorism worries. One example of this trend, stated Friedman, was the placement of National Guard troops at airports post-9/11 when many of them “were unarmed.” Rather, he suggests increasing competition between competing government agencies for homeland security funds, because “right now, they [competing government agencies] hype their vulnerability locally to gain federal grants” by increasing public panic and overreaction.

He argues that the Bush administration took “political energy from 9/11 to put it into something [Iraq]” that Friedman believed had no credence. In the end, Friedman lamented, the federal budget expands and there is no accountability due to support of congressionally-induced public panic.

Dr. John Mueller agreed with Friedman that the “amount spent [by the government is] approaching a trillion dollars” and joked, “even in Washington that’s real money.” Mueller reasoned that “Osama Bin Laden said that his goal is to get the U.S. to overreact” and this should be a primary reason for Americans to restrain from overreacting to terrorism. He admitted that it is tough to find the likelihood of terrorist attacks by statistics and numbers. Nevertheless, he asserted that the American government and public “exaggerate terrorist capabilities” because the number of people killed by Muslim terrorists “comes to a few hundred a year.” Regarding the DHS assessment of all terrorists as ‘extreme,’ Mueller believed “it certainly doesn’t apply to the majority of terrorists,” yet Americans “assume that’s basically common.” Ben Friedman agreed, stating, “there’s a lot of…terrorists out there…[there are] no Bond supervillains…we’ve got to be honest about [the threat].”

In light of the failed terrorist bombing of New York’s Time Square, Mueller agrees with Michael Sheehan’s opinion of Al Qaeda terrorists, that “we underestimated Al Qaeda’s (ability) before 9/11 and after 9/11” and again criticized government spending, saying, “if Al Qaeda is full of a bunch of boneheads, why are we spending this much money?” Mueller alleged that Sheehan kept his opinion to himself so he could receive federal funding for his agency.

The CATO forum on homeland security illustrates the importance of an open discussion and accountability regarding taxpayer funds for these programs, and what solutions could be implemented to secure America without causing widespread public panic and overspending.

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