Patterico's Pontifications


David Bell Says We’re Overreacting to 9/11 — But Is He As Wrong As Larry Johnson Was?

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General,Terrorism — Patterico @ 12:01 am

A fellow named David Bell, writing in the L.A. Times, asks: Was 9/11 really that bad?

His answer appears to be “no.” Bell’s thesis is that we are overreacting to a terrorism threat that poses no mortal danger to this country:

The people who attacked us in 2001 are indeed hate-filled fanatics who would like nothing better than to destroy this country. But desire is not the same thing as capacity, and although Islamist extremists can certainly do huge amounts of harm around the world, it is quite different to suggest that they can threaten the existence of the United States.

He goes on to suggest that the terrorists don’t pose an “apocalyptic threat”:

[D]espite the even more nightmarish fantasies of the post-9/11 era (e.g. the TV show “24’s” nuclear attack on Los Angeles), Islamist terrorists have not come close to deploying weapons other than knives, guns and conventional explosives. A war it may be, but does it really deserve comparison to World War II and its 50 million dead? Not every adversary is an apocalyptic threat.

So why has there been such an overreaction?

This is reminiscent of a similar statement made a few years back:

Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.

None of these beliefs are based in fact. … While terrorism is not vanquished, in a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are still aimed across the continents, terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way.

That statement was made by “Larry Johnson, a retired CIA and State Department counter-terrorism expert” . . . in July 2001. (Hat tip Mike K.)


Shortly after 9/11, Tim Noah called Johnson’s analysis “bold, persuasive, and 100 percent wrong.”

I sure hope David Bell is not similarly wrong.

But I’m afraid he may be. And I’m not willing to risk my family’s safety on Bell’s complacent analysis.

22 Responses to “David Bell Says We’re Overreacting to 9/11 — But Is He As Wrong As Larry Johnson Was?”

  1. Dude, your family has a greater risk of being run over by Brandy’s Escalade than you do of being hit by a terrorist attack.

    So please stop spending all our money and sending other kids off to die for Bush’s vanity war.

    Macswain (5b310d)

  2. What I find disquieting in his analysis is the unspoken idea of, “it’s no big deal”. The sort of moral and ideological sloth that would lull too many of us into a 9/10/2001 mentality.

    “Just a little sleep, a folding of the hands….”

    Subvet (2d8adb)

  3. Using this standard, Pearl Harbor was not that big of deal. So David, why did we fight a war to liberate France, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Norway, Denmark, the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and to turn Germany and Japan into democracies?

    Perfect Sense (b6ec8c)

  4. The people who attacked us in 2001 are indeed hate-filled fanatics who would like nothing better than to destroy this country. But desire is not the same thing as capacity

    Isn’t that the whole argument for invading Iraq? That, while the terrorists can be pains in the butt and somewhat destructive with planes, IEDs and car bombs, they WOULD pose a serious threat to our existence if they were allowed to acquire the WMD’s that so many of us suspected Iraq of having? Just because they didn’t have the capacity to wreak major destruction (because apparnetly destroying the twin towers, striking the heart of our military and slaughtering our brothers and sisters isn’t a big deal?) doesn’t mean they couldn’t acquire that capacity, right? Right. And so here we are involved in this global war on terror to keep them from A) killing anyone in anyway and B) acquiring the “capacity” to do any big-scale harm.

    Jeff (331631)

  5. Why miss an opportunity for a big fight tomorrow by running away from a small fight today?

    jpm100 (851d24)

  6. Sure, one could argue that, excepting those killed that day (and their families and friends), of course 9/11 wasn’t really ‘that’ bad, it could have been much, much worse.

    The United States didn’t respond in the way we did because 9/11 in itself was that bad, we responded because 9/11 was a wake-up call, a kick in the teeth that we could not longer afford to ignore or downplay the threat posed by those who really, really don’t like us.

    Unlike Bell, most Americans, I’m happy to say, don’t think we ought to wait until our enemies prove they have the capabilities to ‘destroy’ America (whatever ‘destroy’ means). Isn’t it far better to keep them from getting the means to really hurt us than to sit and wait until they do and then try to keep that from happening?

    steve sturm (9e95c8)

  7. What Bell and others like him ignore is that the cost of a successful major terrorist attack cannot be measured only in the number of lives lost. The economic consequences of successful major terrorist attacks are incalculable. How many people won’t come to work in Manhattan after a dirty bomb goes off on Wall Street? How many people will decide urban living can be hazardous to your health after simultaneous attacks in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston? What would happen in towns along the path of such an exodus? How many people will lose their jobs or not be able to find work in the ensuing recession? How much equity in retirement accounts and college funds will vanish overnight when the Dow drops to 2,000? How many people who need health care won’t be able to get it after resources are diverted to treating the casualties of a mass attack?

    The true threat comes not in the number of lives the enemy can destroy in a successful attack, but the long-term consequences on the vast majority who would survive.

    Diffus (ead439)

  8. “Islamist terrorists have not come close to deploying weapons other than knives, guns and conventional explosives.” While there’s no suspect yet for the post 9-11 anthrax attacks, I certainly haven’t discounted an Islamist motive. Bell is being a little glib in his blanket pronouncement, I think.

    Which is actually the least of my problems with this ridiculous article.

    See-Dubya (4f4ccf)

  9. I believe the problem with this dismissal of Islamist terrorism is that the purveyors of such twaddle keep thinking that only some sort of huge Big Bang will destroy America

    But death by a thousand cuts can be just as destructive.

    Look at how Europe is going. Unless there is a seachange, it will be Islamic within a couple of generations.

    What if the plot to destroy American planes over the Atlantic had not been foiled? What if, instead of over 5 years of no further successful attacks on American soil, we were confronted each morning with reports of yet another car/truck bombing in major cities. Attacks accompanied by the latest moslem offense and demands for ‘change.’

    People like Jhimmi Carter would have us declare ourselves the sinners and make the changes.

    China won’t allow any advertisement of the Year of the Pig so as not to “offend” its moslems.

    China, for heaven’s sake.

    Darleen (543cb7)

  10. It’s post-9/11 attitudes like Bell’s that drove me from leaning Democratic to leaning Republican.

    aunursa (1b5bad)

  11. In the dark places of my heart where I keep such things, I do wonder what Mr. Bell would say if I were to walk up to him and break his nose. I mean, it’s not like I would do all that much damage, really. He’d live. He’d eventually heal. Would it really be all that bad?

    Do you think he’d be prone to a little “over-reaction” himself?

    Thankfully, I keep such thoughts in those dark places and don’t act on them. Additionally, I encourage other people to not act on those kinds of thoughts. For starters, it’s illegal. Secondly, it’s not polite. And third, he probably wouldn’t learn from it anyway.

    Darkmage (4de99c)

  12. Isn’t our “overreaction” kind of the point? Don’t we want those murdering lunatics to think a minute what the possible consequences for their actions might be?

    Osama thought he might incite a religious war, with jihadis running to Afghanistan to kill G.I’s. How’d that work out for him?

    Disproportionate response is a risk these guys need to deal with before they act.

    spongeworthy (45b30e)

  13. Macswain — there are now ten nuclear powers counting Iran and North Korea. Egypt, Saudi, UAE, Jordan, Yemen, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria have all announced nuke programs. That will soon bring to 19 the number of nuclear nations (and perhaps higher).

    Muslims cannot exists in the modern world the US creates. Quick name one world-class Muslim university, Medical Center, technology center, or international company. Muslims have produced no technical or scientific innovation except copying the Tamil Tigers suicide bombing. They understand very well that the Modern World driven by the US will erase Mohammed’s message under individual choice, freedom and materialism.

    This they reject, and hope to use will through spectacular violence to cause non-Muslims to submit to Sharia Law and eventually become Muslims. The terror in Europe along with low level thuggery like car-b-ques have caused France, Italy, Spain, England, Germany, and most of the Scandis to surrender to Muslims. Alone Eastern Europeans have decided not to surrender but fight.

    Here in this country it would be rather easy for Islamists to nuke a few cities (Oppenheimer did not even bother to test Little Boy) and the result would be remarkably ugly.

    Rather than 24 handwringing over civil liberties you’d see people taking things into their own hands. I can assure you not a Mosque would be standing nor a Muslim safe in this country after a nuking of a US city. Which sober and moderate people like Sam Nunn feel is inevitable.

    Failure to take into account the spread of modern technology, centers of nuclear technology such as Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and China which lack modern and responsible leadership, is stupidity of the highest order.

    As a Holocaust survivor said, when someone says he wants to kill you, believe him. Hezbollah’s head says “we are not fighting you to get anything from you. We are fighting you to kill you.”

    Jim Rockford (e09923)

  14. Drop Dave an email at

    Matt (725443)

  15. “Islamist terrorists have not come close to deploying weapons other than knives, guns and conventional explosives.” …did not rtfa, but I think that list is missing something “airplanes.” Islamists will use any tools at their disposal to the greatest damage possible. If the author believes that the limits to weapons used is by choice rather than logistics and resources, he is deluded.

    Joli Rouge (89ac2b)

  16. Mac Swain,
    First,starting with “Dude” as your salutation makes it hard to take you seriously.Then,you make it impossible to do so with your post.
    Let me point out some of your underlying assumptions.
    1)If we do nothing,the risk won’t increase; has already maximized.
    2)The term “kids” to denote soldiers labels them as innocent and unable to make their own decisions.A better term would be “warriors”-or at least “men” or “women”.because the youngest in the service are young,doesn’t mean you should patronize them.
    3)By using the term “kids”,you’re not mentioning most of the soldiers in the volunteer army are not post adolscents.(Just for fun,please ell me what you believe the average age of an Iraqi vet is)
    4)how many people were killed by “Brandy’s Escalande”.And in just 9/11?I didn’t major in math,but I did take a lot.Could you please amplify your reasoning?

    lincoln (751751)

  17. I wonder how many of Johnson “business clients” had offices in the World Trade Center ? He is also best buddy with the woman CIA analyst fired for leaking.

    “Isn’t our “overreaction” kind of the point? Don’t we want those murdering lunatics to think a minute what the possible consequences for their actions might be?”

    The famous Reagan “slip of the tongue” when he said “Bombing will start in ten minutes” when testing a microphone, has now been described as a planned gambit to shake up the Soviets at a time when they were getting too comfortable with the detente crowd.

    Rudy Giuliani got New York City back to liveable (Although I wouldn’t live there) by following Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of city government. The theory was that you did not allow small breaches of the peace. If you did, the small time criminals graduated to bigger things. The same principle applies to “Three strikes” laws. There is a small number of high frequency offenders who commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime. Put them away and you get a big decrease in crime.

    International relations is not city government or crime fighting. Still, allowing midgets like Osama to tweak our noses year after year, like Clinton did, leads them to make big plans. Saddam was a serial offender. He had been a trouble maker for decades. When we needed to show the Arabs that they couldn’t kick sand in our faces forever, he was right there like a punching bag. He had a “kick me” sign the size of Kuwait City. Now maybe we missed a lot of opportunities to get it right in the occupation but this is new stuff. I think we had to take him and the Taliban out. The same hand wringers about Iraq were predicting quagmire in Afghanistan. They’d just as soon we don’t check back on what they were saying at the time. Like Johnson.

    Mike K (6d4fc3)

  18. 9/11 Wasn’t So Bad?…

    Absolute lunacy. Just read it….

    JammieWearingFool (59ce3a)

  19. Why do I get the feeling he should have finished his column with “YHBT HAND”?

    Veeshir (dfa2bf)

  20. 9/11… Not Your Grandfather’s Kind of Apocalypse!…

    More and more, Big Lizards seems to be zeroing in on the insanity of the big-box media. I don’t mind; it’s a topic that is critical, amusing — and endlessly giving. I am undeterred by the fact that a couple……

    Big Lizards (5ca406)

  21. I felt the mood like all did after that event. It cast a shadow for at least a year. Yet, I do think in some sense, that we may not always get payback for things like that. And I especially think that when we do go for payback, we should buttfuck the other guy, with no kiss afterwards. IOW, invade Afghanistan, hang (LITERALLY) the Taliban and AQ (but if you can’t find Bin Ladin, some Taliban is good for things), and then LEAVE. Let the place be a ablister.

    Same deal with Somalia, etc. Great little use of the Ethiopians lately. The right model is the wars with the Barbary Pirates. Not WW2.

    TCO (ac2bf3)

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