The Just Right Fear Industry, in 18,000 Words

Steven Brill thinks we’re not worried enough about bioterrorism and dirty bombs. He makes that argument even while acknowledging that a dirty bomb attack launched in Washington DC would result in just 50 additional cancer deaths. And curiously, his extensive discussion about germ threats (inspired by a Scooter Libby report, no less!) doesn’t mention that the Russian military is currently struggling to contain an anthrax attack launched by a thawing reindeer.

That’s the problem with Brill’s opus: anthrax attacks only matter if they’re launched by Islamic extremist reindeers, not reindeers weaponized by climate change. (And if you were wondering, although he discusses it at length, Brill doesn’t mention that the 2001 anthrax attack, which was done with anthrax derived from a US lab, has never been solved.)

He makes a similar error when he spends 18 paragraphs focusing on what he (or his editors) dub “cyberterrorism” only to focus on OPM as proof the threat exists and includes this paragraph from Jim Comey admitting terrorists don’t yet have the capabilities to hurt us our Chinese and Russian adversaries do.

For his part, the FBI’s Comey worries more about a cyberterror onslaught directed at the private sector than one directed at the government. “These savages,” he says, “have so far only figured out how to use the internet to proselytize, not to wreak physical damage. What happens when they figure out how to use it to break into a chemical plant, or a blood bank and change the blood types? We know they are trying. And they don’t have to come here to do it.”

Biothreats and hacking are a threat. But it would be sheer idiocy to approach the problem, at this point, as primarily one of terrorism when climate change and nation-state adversaries clearly present a more urgent threat.

But it’s not just Brill who adopts some weird categorization. The article is perhaps most interesting for the really telling things he gets Comey to say, as when he suggests FBI drops investigations when they hear a “wing nut” making bomb threats in a restaurant.

“Think about it from our perspective,” Comey said when I asked about this. “Suppose someone is overheard in a restaurant saying that he wants to blow something up. And someone tells us about it. What should we do? Don’t we need to find out if he was serious? Or was he drunk? The way to do that is to have someone engage him in an undercover way, not show up with a badge and say, ‘What are your thoughts in regard to terrorism?’ ”

“Plenty of times it’s a wing nut or some drunk, and we drop it,” he continued.

I actually think the FBI, as an institution, is better than this. But to have the FBI Director suggest his bureau wouldn’t follow up if someone making bomb threats was deemed a radical but would if they were deemed a Muslim is really telling.

Which gets to the core of the piece. Over the course of the 18,000+ words, Brill admits — and quotes both President Obama and Comey admitting — that what makes terrorism different from the equally lethal attacks by other mentally unstable or “wing nut” types is the fear such attacks elicit.

President Obama described the difference to me this way: “If the perpetrator is a young white male, for instance—as in Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown—it’s widely seen as yet another tragic example of an angry or disturbed person who decided to lash out against his classmates, co-workers, or community. And even as the nation is shaken and mourns, these kinds of shootings don’t typically generate widespread fear. I’d point out that when the shooter or victims are African American, it is often dismissed with a shrug of indifference—as if such violence is somehow endemic to certain communities. In contrast, when the perpetrators are Muslim and seem influenced by terrorist ideologies—as at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon bombing, San Bernardino, and Orlando—the outrage and fear is much more palpable. And yet, the fact is that Americans are far more likely to be injured or killed by gun violence than a terrorist attack.”

The FBI’s Comey agrees. “That the shooter in San Bernardino said he was doing it in the name of isil changed everything,” he told me. “It generates anxiety that another shooting incident, where the shooter isn’t a terrorist, doesn’t. That may be irrational, but it’s real.”

Nevertheless, all three — even Brill, in a piece where he takes Obama to task for not publicizing his change in dirty bomb response, refers to “deranged people and terrorists” obtaining assault weapons as if they are mutually exclusive categories — seem utterly unaware that part of the solution needs to be to stop capitulating to this fear. Stop treating terrorism as the unique, greatest threat when you know it isn’t. Channel the money being spent on providing tanks to local police departments to replacing lead pipes instead (an idea Brill floats but never endorses). Start treating threats to our infrastructure — both physical and digital — including those caused by weaponized reindeer as the threat they are.

And for chrissakes, don’t waste 18,000 words on a piece that at once scolds for fearmongering even while perpetuating that fear.

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.

5 replies
  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    I’ve skimmed the piece – probably won’t ever read it in detail. You’ve got it – the piece fans fear while saying that fear is the problem. I know good reporting is about telling stories, but I’ve tried to work through the stories on Donald Trump and Russia recently, and there’s very little meat on the bones, but a great deal of narrative fat. Same with this piece.
    .
    I know this is incorrigibly wonky of me, but I wish that the people writing these pieces had some acquaintance with doing things with their hands. Or that they would actually visit a lab or factory that does some of these operations. They confuse talking about stuff with actually doing it. The latter is harder.

  2. Procopius says:

    The FBI’s Comey agrees. “That the shooter in San Bernardino said he was doing it in the name of isil changed everything,” he told me.

    The shooter in San Bernadino said he was doing it in the name of ISIL? I must be out of the loop. I didn’t see that. Where was it reported, CNN or Fox? All the early indications were that he was enraged over long-time harassment by co-workers and the police and FBI were desperately trying, without success, to make it a terrorism story. Of course, over the last month or so it has become apparent that Mr. Comey has a very loose relationship with truth.

  3. Evangelista says:

    Marcy,

    The Presidential Policy Guideline appears to be a ‘logic cascade’ in verbalized form. It could be graphed as a Boolean logic chart defining a descending order of command controls (and nand or) and options (if), and probably, for clarification, should be. Perhaps computer, or Artificial Intelligence, scientists of Steven Aftergood’s organization can translate the PPG and comparable decision directing documents to logic charts to clarify their constructions and potential purposes and de-obscurify their bypassing, excepting and object purposes.

    The default-state for the PPG document, for example, appears to be “kill”, which defines the document’s object to be to present and-nand-or-nor peripheral conditions that will produce yes-no, or go-nogo logic-decision products that may deny default (or require bypass ‘ignore’ permissions).

    Viewed in this light, as a logic-array Boolean Decision-Making Device, the PPG becomes an AI. An Artificial Intelligence. An in-and-of-itself decision-making program that Presidents and their Advisors, and Approved Agency Administrators my assign responsibility for drone-kill decisions.

    Setting aside the moral questions involved in murder-as-a-solution solution questions (which the Administration long ago set aside, as their oblivion to inevitability of indirect and long-term reaction consequences proofs), so that we may focus, instead, to the potential motivations that might be driving the current perpetrators of drone-murder to shift decision-making (retroactively to [at least] 2013) from themselves to a Program AI, we can wonder if they are developing conscience, and so are finding themselves with burdens of guilt requiring to be shifted ere it become crushing, or if they are now, with the ends of their terms in office/power looming specter-like and inevitable before them, becoming worried they may be brought before a bar, where they may need to do some blame-shifting: “It wasn’t me! It was The PPG! The Program! The Program dunnit! The AI! The AI made me do it! I was just following or–, ehm, –the PPG’s Program’s Logic!”

    Or maybe the ‘specter’ is the appearing to be growing likelihood that America may be treated to its own “Orange” revolution come January, 2017. The specter of Donald Trump, already reaching for his “second amendment right”, to “keep and bear drones”, if he wins the election and becomes the next U.S. President.

    There can be no doubt of the specter of a Trump Presidency putting the wind up those in and behind the last decades of increasing Presidential powers and privileges. Their raising of the U.S. Presidency above Constitutional controls to actual Dictator power-levels, their concentration of powers in the office. They considered them safe, the election of Hillary and consequent continuation of the Clinton Dynasty appearing to be in-the-bag… Then, suddenly, descending the wall, climbing down from Trump Tower, swatting away the media helicopters like they were flies…

    It could come down to either leaving the concentrated unConstitutional powers to be picked up by the monster, or declare them illegal. Throw the current administration’s ex-officio orphans under the bus (or, in their case, into the dock) and take up sword and shield to defend (ehm, restore, really, but let’s not hang up in semantics) the Constitution…

    But, maybe if an AI can be created and loaded with the blame…made the ‘goat’ and flogged off out into the desert… Maybe Obama’s Presidential library can be kept from being a prison library.

    If it doesn’t work the only option could be Executive Clemency: Obama admitting guilt in November, pardoning himself in December… Think of the alternative: The First Black President…And they throwed him in jail!… Worse yet, because he done what he was told to do.

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