Overblown?

Terrorism is not funny.  But America’s counter-terrorism policies and tactics sometimes border on the absurd.

Exhibit A: Just last week the AP ran a story that reported that the FBI had issued a “cautionary bulletin,” stating that “suspected members of extremist groups have signed up as school bus drivers in the United States.”  (See Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 17, 2007, at A7).  The article went on to report that the FBI spokeman, Rich Kolko, said “There are no threats, no plots and no history leading us to believe there is any reason for concern.”  Wow, that’s useful.

Exhibit B: When I was in the airport yesterday I heard over the loud speaker the all-too familiar words: “Warning, the terrorism threat level has been raised to Orange.”  Orange (“high”) is the second highest threat level, just below “severe” and above “elevated.” In my job I fly often, and since the Advisory System was launched in March 2002, I can’t remember ever hearing that the threat level was less than orange.  During an Orange Threat we’re supposed to be hyper vigilent for suspicious behavior, but it’s like having one-too many fire drills, no one is paying attention anymore.

Exhibit C:  Who can forget FEMA’s prescription for surviving a dirty bomb or biological attack: put up plastic sheeting with duct tape to create a “safe room” when directed by authorities.  (See Washington Post, August 6, 2002, at A1).  This created long lines at Home Depot, but it immediately struck me as about as useful as the “duck and cover” drills the government required when I was a kid  – as if hiding under a school desk would save you from an atomic blast.

We can laugh at it, sure, but then one thinks, “what is this really about?”  Is this merely CYA so that government officials can deflect blame if there is another major terrorist incident?  Do government officials want to keep us in a state of intense fear to justify their legislative agenda?  And what’s the cost to society?

If you want to read a thought provoking book that attempts to answer those questions, I recommend, Bob Mueller’s “Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them”  available at:

For an upcoming AIDP American National Section Conference, I’m contemplating convening an interantional symposium of experts to discuss and debate this issue, and I invite your ideas about possible speakers.

Michael P. Scharf

President of the AIDP American National Section

Professor of Law and Director

Frederick K. Cox International Law Center

Case Western Reserve University School of Law