“Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country; they undermine our allies. But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands…. they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.”

                                – President Obama, State of the Union, January 12, 2016
“Even worse, we are facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it.”

                              – Gov. Nikki Haley, Republican response to State of the Union

he Republican consensus these days comes down to this: Be Afraid. Don’t Give Peace a Chance. Ever.

Pretty much all Republicans and too many Democrats buy into the notion that ISIS is a serious threat to the United States. Of course it’s not, as the president reminded us, before pretty much contradicting himself and arguing the need for the US to wipe out ISIS. Why? If ISIS is not a mortal threat, then there’s no need to wipe it out. A sane and logical person can’t have it both ways. But then we live in a time where sane and logical people are not highly valued in the leadership class, or by much of the population at large.

The Republican pitch is a con game with a simple cycle: (1) exaggerate a limited threat, like bin Laden or ISIS, into a monster of terrifying proportions, then (2) promise to protect the homeland from this huge, imaginary threat, and finally (3) take credit for defending America when the threat-that-is-not-so-real fails to materialize. This is an ancient paradigm, most recently played out in America’s “victory” in the Cold War, a victory that has left the US politically and culturally gutted and adrift. Seizing on the opportunity of 9/11, the US re-started the same con with “terror” in the place of “communism,” and the con continues.

The reality, on September 12, 2001, was that two places in the US had been attacked with an effectiveness expected by almost no one. A series of intelligence failures, inattention by law enforcement, sloppy security, and unlikely engineering produced the collapse of the World Trade Center and limited damage to the Pentagon, with almost 3,000 dead. 9/11 was sudden and shocking, with powerful optics, but it was a discreet, unique event with virtually zero possibility of repetition.

Statistically, terrorism is an inconsequential threat to Americans

Even counting all 38 American deaths from “terrorism” since 9/11, the 15-year total of American civilians dead from terrorism is still fewer than 3,000. The total of Americans dead from terror doesn’t begin to match other killing factors taking out Americans on a near-daily basis. Since 2001, out of some 40 million American deaths, over 400,000 were Americans dead from guns, over 500,000 were Americans dead from cars, and over 9 million were Americans dead from heart disease. So why has the US spent $1.7 trillion or more fighting terrorism over the same 15 years? Statistically, terrorism is inconsequential killer of Americans – so that proves the war on terror works, as a successful con, stopping an almost non-existent threat and saving Americans lives (that weren’t in danger).

Americans, on the other hand, are very consequential killers of other people. But these are inconsequential people, apparently, because no one has an accurate civilian body-count of maybe 2,500 dead Pakistanis, maybe 10,00 dead Yemenis, maybe 400,000 dead Afghans, maybe 1,000,000 dead Iraqis, most of them killed by the US and its allies with a reckless disregard for the rules of war. Then there’s maybe 500,000 dead Syrians killed by all sides, including the US and its allies.

Avenging 3,000 dead Americans, the US is responsible, directly and indirectly, for more than 2 million dead civilians in countries attacked in the “war on terror,” and yet Gov. Haley says, with a straight face and no serious public challenge, that “we are facing the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th.”

This is pure fearmongering. There has been no credible threat to the US since 9/11. There is none now. There would perhaps have been no threat before 9/11 if President Bush had taken warnings from the intelligence community seriously. Fear has always been one of the dirtier tools of governing, but after 9/11 the Bush administration drove the country to mindless war using fear on steroids. The administration’s cries of wolf were amplified by panic at the top of almost every American institution that might have countered such popular delusions.

Institutionally, the US has improved little since 9/11. President Obama does say of the Islamic State (aka ISIL or ISIS or Daesh) that “they do not threaten our national existence,” which is abundantly clear and true. But he says that only in the false, dishonest, fearmongering context of reinforcing irrational fear:

Priority number one is protecting the American people and going after terrorist networks. Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people….

This is a continuation of the establishment con, promising to protect the American people from a threat that is hardly real. There’s almost no way to fail once people buy into the con. But now, perhaps, a majority of the people is ahead of the leadership’s endless, bipartisan deceptions. Popular understanding of the con is strong enough now to keep politicians from being too eager to send in American troops in large numbers, but popular opinion is not yet expressing itself strongly enough to change the direction of the present pointless, bloody war in which the most measurable accomplishment is creating more jihadis, more fighters for radical Islam (false Islam), more would-be terrorists on a quest for martyrdom. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to shift to tactics that did not perpetuate and enlarge the chaos and devastation that have flowed without surcease from the US’s criminal invasion of Iraq?

Is that an ISIS hiding under your bed?

Current estimates of ISIS military strength vary wildly, by orders of magnitude, but even at the most (200,000) ISIS is not a danger to the US, it’s not much of a danger to the Syrian government, and it’s somewhat of a danger to the Kurds of Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon and CIA generally estimate that ISIS has about 30,000 fighters in Syria/Iraq. This is a force smaller than the New York Police Department’s 34,000 officers, who are responsible for 305 square miles with over 8 million inhabitants. ISIS forces cover an area estimated to be more than 12,000 square miles (as much as 35,000) with a population of 2.8 to 8 million.

According to the Pentagon last fall, ISIS is “tactically stalemated.” The Pentagon estimates that ISIS gets about 1,000 recruits a month and that airstrikes kill about 1,000 ISIS fighters a month. But the Pentagon also says it doesn’t do body counts, and in any event has no one on the ground to count the bodies.

ISIS is committed to holding as much of its territory as it can. Territory is necessary to validate its claim to being a caliphate. ISIS is intent on expanding its territory, if possible. That makes it less of a threat to the US than to the countries that border ISIS (Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Saudi Arabia), two of which (Turkey and Saudi Arabia) support ISIS more than they fight it. Those four countries have one other thing in common: they all want the US to do more of the fighting than they’re willing to do. And ISIS, for more perverse reasons, wants the US drawn deeper into the Middle East quagmire. And to achieve that, ISIS issues freakish videos and will (if it can) mount terrorist attacks to provoke another mindless US escalation.

In a communiqué to “All Jihadi Brothers” dated November 18, 2015, ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi described the success of 9/11 from his perspective:

Every attack we launch upon the infidel West shows its tenuous hold on its precious civil liberties, their freedoms that we supposedly covet. One attack on the Great Satan was enough to make it torture, spy upon its citizens, kill many Muslim brothers, and entrap yet others through perverse law-enforcement schemes. A few more artfully placed and timed attacks and we will bring the residents of these dens of fornication and perversity to their knees…. In this task, we will be aided, as we already are, by those who continue to disenfranchise their own citizens and commit to oblivion their own esteemed moral, legal, and political principles. They continue to kill our innocent brothers and sisters and their children from the sky; they continue to imprison Muslim brothers without trial, scorning their own precious legal parchments from which the words ‘due process’ have so easily been scrubbed.

A terrorist act is designed to instill fear in the target population, as it did so lastingly on 9/11. A terrorist act is defeated by being brave. A terrorist act is primarily political, designed to make the target population act irrationally, out of fear, against its own interests. At least since 2001, provoked by terrorist-inspired fear, the frightened US government, abetted by American media and other institutions, has acted not only as a global terrorist itself, but also as an effective terrorist enabler and terrorist breeder. This has kept the con, and the carnage, going, to the benefit of a few office holders and profiteers. Whether the public has caught on enough to reject the next terrorist provocation as the sucker-bait it is remains to be seen. How afraid will you be?