Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post is one of the best defense correspondents out there, but he goes off the deep end in this article, claiming that there is a truth that no politician, general, or think tanker dare utter–that “measured by most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer.” He explains: “Global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, with 238 U.S. citizens killed in terrorist attacks, mostly in war zones, according to the National Counterterrorism Center’s annual reports. By comparison, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that 293 Americans were crushed during the same stretch by falling furniture or televisions.” Therefore, he more or less suggests, there is no reason to spend as much as we do on defense. “The candidates’ rhetoric, however, suggests that the globe is ablaze.”
Jaffe’s first claim is actually self-refuting–the notion that no one dare talk about how safe we are. He quotes academics and think tankers who do just that. In fact, the argument that the terrorist threat is overblown is a regular trope of political scientist John Mueller (see, for instance, this 2006 Foreign Affairs article). The fact that such arguments have won little traction in the political process–even relatively dovish Democrats think we should be spending a lot of money on homeland defense–is a sign not of the overwhelming lobbying power of defense contractors or hawkish think tankers or other actors, but rather of the fundamental unreality behind these arguments.
In the first place, the claim that only 238 U.S. citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks in the last decade is ludicrous. That may be true if counting only civilians. But what about the 6,632 (and counting) service personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq? I suppose you could argue they were the victims of guerrillas rather than terrorists, but the distinction is pretty artificial. You could further argue that their deaths somehow don’t count, because they were serving abroad in a war zone. But that ignores the fact that our intervention in Afghanistan was a direct response to an act of terrorism on American soil. (The intervention in Iraq, I would argue, was an indirect response to the same attack.)
The notion that is somehow going away also doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, coming as it does at a time when 35,000 (and counting) people have been killed in Syria’s civil war alone. It’s true, as Steven Pinker and others argue, that wars are considerably less common and deadly today than they once were, but that is due in part to the fact that the U.S. and our allies have spent so much to keep the peace in Europe and East Asia over the past half-century and more. If we let our guard down, we can pay a heavy price–as we did on 9/11. Remember that there were plenty of voices before 9/11 claiming that the terrorist threat was overblown; they were wrong then and they are wrong now. Numerous dangers lurk out there–from Chinese, Russian and Iranian cyberattacks to the Iranian nuclear program to the rise of Chinese naval power and the spreading tentacles of al-Qaeda’s organization throughout the Middle East.
That is why we need to keep spending as much as we do on defense–it is a relatively cheap insurance policy against various threats known and unknown. It’s not as if defense spending is crippling our economy–as Aaron O’Connell notes in the New York Times today, we spend less than 5 percent of GDP on defense compared to 14 percent in 1953.
A final point. The argument that we can simply slash defense because so few people are getting killed, especially by terrorists, is particularly odd, because many of those who make this case are no doubt sympathetic to the argument that we should be undertaking costly efforts to stop global warming even though there are no verifiable deaths due to this phenomenon. (Michael Bloomberg’s fanciful claim that superstorm Sandy was a result of global warming does not qualify as proof, needless to say.) We are being asked to spend large amounts of money to head off climate dangers that may or may not materialize in a few decades. The danger of terrorism–especially nuclear terrorism–is considerably more pressing and deserves a more serious response. Which is something that political leaders on both sides of the aisle seem to get.