The Dangers of Crying Wolf

In the wake of yet another in a string of 40 terrorist panics that came to naught, two terrorism experts have posts commenting on crying wolf. Ali Soufan’s consultant firm treats the over-response to the Fourth of July warnings as justifiable, though notes the general sense of unease serves ISIL’s purpose.

While calls for the public to remain vigilant are common sense, they need not become an incessant drumbeat, as fears of lone wolf and known wolf attackers can too easily give way to cries of wolf that are taxing and counterproductive.

[snip]

That neither false alarm was terrorism related did little to blunt the worry that both could have been; indeed both were assumed to have been terrorism by a public told to expect the worst but not told why. The spectacle of massive law enforcement responses, which make sense given the history of ill-advised moderation and hesitation during active shooter situations, plays into the propaganda playbook of the Islamic State. Unspecific warnings to be on the lookout for an attack further add to the false but easily repeated sense that the national security situation is out of control. The nation is actually relatively safe, thanks to a decade of intense efforts by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. No one feels safe, however, given the attacks, tweets, and taunts of a terrorist group long active in Iraq and now in Syria.

This unease stems in part from the way the Islamic State has changed the landscape of terrorism, moving away from spectacular attacks that topple a society’s skyscrapers to banal but brutal attacks that destroy a society’s sense of security. A sound misheard as a gunshot at the premier military hospital in the United States can be assumed to be the start of a Tunisia-style terror attack precisely because such an attack is so easy to pull off. Shooting tourists on a beach in Tunisia or in an office in Paris means no one feels safe, even if no one is actually threatened beforehand.

[snip]

The group will gladly accept people crying wolf in its name as much as it accepts lone wolves acting in its name. A persistent level of perceived threat allows this approach to succeed where it should fail.

Peter Bergen weighs the costs of repeated panics more critically.

Since there was virtually no downside for U.S. national security officials to issue terrorism alerts, the American public has been regularly warned that some kind of serious terrorist attack is in the offing.

Crying wolf, however, does have repercussions. There are significant costs to these terror alerts, both economic and social.

This weekend, local governments and businesses spent significant sums putting temporary security upgrades in place. Some Americans made alternative vacation plans. In the past, many flights have been canceled and commerce impeded.

More fundamentally, the issuing of alerts undermines the essential purpose of counterterrorism — to prevent terrorist attacks, yes, but also to guarantee American citizens’ right to live outside the realm of fear that terrorists want to impose on us. Inflated, ineffectual warnings do not serve the purpose of effective counterterrorism; they contradict it.

We seem to have inverted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous admonition “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” so that our motto today is closer to “We will continually live in a state of self-imposed fear.”

When this happens, we are doing the job of terrorists for them.

I’d add two things.

First, don’t forget that sustained panics has helped the security state demand new authorities in the past, as when in 2004 an election year threat the CIA early discounted nevertheless served as the excuse to restart torture and the dragnet. Jim Comey was a part of that (though Comey seems to have served more as a willful dupe to the CIA and Cheney types than the instigator). So it should stand as a warning, especially when Comey is using the ISIL threat to demand encryption back doors.

But this discussion also needs some perspective. After all, as the national security state was panicking over loud noises, there was a slew of gun violence in Chicago.

After a relatively quiet start to the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, a burst of gun violence overnight left three dead and 27 people wounded in just eight hours, including a 7-year-old boy killed after returning from a celebration.

“It’s crazy,” said Vedia Hailey, the grandmother of the boy, Amari Brown. “Who would shoot a 7-year-old in the chest? Who would do that to a baby? When is it going to stop?”

From 9:20 p.m Saturday until 4:45 a.m. Sunday, 30 people were shot across Chicago, three of them fatally, including Amari.

Even when casualties from senseless gun violence rival that of any terror attack in the US since 9/11, CNN doesn’t run it 24/7, nor do people seem all that concerned about the destruction of Chicago’s South Side’s sense of security.

Moreover, the costs go far beyond those Bergen lays out.

After all, if national security remains defined as counterterrorism (or maybe gets expanded to include hackers), we will ignore two bigger threats to our country and the globe: climate change and bankster havoc.

Every time we spend a holiday weekend hiding from manufactured fears, we will lose focus on bigger threats.

Over the weekend we celebrated the brave audacity of a bunch of men who dared to take risks to demand their autonomy (while denying it to their non-white and female chattel). Our country has since allowed itself to be dominated by fears.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    You know, I believe you have brought up this topic several times, but your plaintive mewlings don’t seem to be having much effect. Perhaps you could lay off for a while … :)
    .
    It may be that US gun violence is “Old”, while the networks only want to provide “News” to their diminishing band of viewers; Al Qaeda wouldn’t draw much attention these days, nor the Ukraine, nor Ebola. The fact is that TV “news” isn’t needed any more, and so it is kicking and screaming as it is dragged off. But that problem will go away in a generation. The real (lasting) problem is the one you note – the FBI’s lack of independence from the political process. Don’t know now to change that, other than to continue to call their bluff when and as possible. Good posting, thank you.

  2. What Constitution? says:

    It was when my local radio news ominously “reported”, on the morning of July 4, that an unidentified “expert” with DHS had said that “the threat level is ‘probably’ the highest it had been since 9/11 itself” that I knew it was time to stop listening to the radio. But at least, God Bless America, the reporting changed when the airwaves and interwebs were entranced by news of the latest Darwin Award Champion: the guy who tried launching fireworks off his own head. RIP. Waiting for the backlash media attention to the NRA guy who, any minute now, is going to find a microphone to announce that the 7 year old in Chicago might still be alive if he had been carrying an AK-47.

    • Jim White says:

      .
      The Darwin Award judges may have a difficult time on their hands. I have heard at least one report that this fellow was a twin. If he was an identical twin, just how are we to score that one? Half a winner since the same genes weren’t entirely removed from the pool?
      .
      On a related note, my initial surprise that the event took place in Maine went away when I was assured by the Florida Man twitter account that the victim was indeed from Florida.

  3. Ed Walker says:

    Isis recognizes that bin Laden’s techniques of terrorism have completely disoriented the political leadership of the US, and they are continuing those techniques. They don’t actually have to attack here, the media will amplify the shock of anyplace they choose to murder people. Politicians will fight for first place in front of cameras to promise perfect safety, and the defense businesses will produce more crap to buy for that purpose. It’s sad we are so predictable.

  4. RUKidding says:

    Does anyone anymore *really* pay attention to these very ginned up “terror” alerts? I certainly don’t bc I know it’s all fraud, and it’s been a fraud since ye olden days of the color coded “terror” alert.
    *
    Quite honestly: does anyone pay attention?
    *
    I ask bc I tossed out my tv a long long time ago, and I mainly listen to the radio for non-nooz programs. If I happened to hear or read some “terrorist” alert, I think I’d immediately forget it.

  5. Don Bacon says:

    “Our country has since allowed itself to be dominated by fears.”
    .
    Or not. I don’t see it.
    .
    Perhaps that’s because nobody takes the government seriously on anything. Why should they?

  6. Les says:

    Remember the first secretary of DHS Tom Ridge and his comment that there was never any intelligence to warrant any of the color-coded terror alerts under the watch. The order to put on the terror alerts had come from the White House.

    ISIS is a manufactured enemy. The public wasn’t moved by the Free Syrian Army’s efforts to get support for air strikes. They used many of the same tactics of false news reports and videos and photographs of staged events. The US public still had no interest in removing Assad. ISIS used many of the same methods. It took staged kidnappings to do so and a relatively small number at that.

  7. Les says:

    By the way, the CIA can find only 60 Syrians to field a revolutionary force to take on ISIS and Assad per the latest US propaganda that the two are allies.

    Remember the first secretary of DHS Tom Ridge and his comment that there were never any intelligence to

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