Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Mason Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

“On Sept. 11, one in 3,000 New Yorkers perished, but in the same year, over one in 1,000 urbanites were murdered in three major cities in the Western Hemisphere alone,” according to Russell Seitz in his article “Weaker Than We Think” in The American Conservative (Dec. 6, 2004). He adds that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon reign supreme among media events not because of the strategic impact of hijacked planes but the power of the media.

 Seitz, formerly of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs and a Los Alamos National Laboratory consultant, has written extensively on weapons of mass destruction and proliferation. He argues: While information about WMDs is all over the place, functional expertise is relatively rare. Building a nuclear weapon, even in the absence of sanctions, entails hundreds of Ph.D.s directing a small army of people. Seitz also says, “Stealing hydrogen bombs, like breaking into Fort Knox, is hard work; the score is still zero despite a half century of trying.”

 There’s no doubt whatsoever that al-Qaeda and other Middle East terrorist groups harbor hate for the United States and intend to do great harm to Americans whenever they can. The important point that Seitz makes in his article is that “policy must consider the capacity for action, not intent alone.”

 According to Seitz, London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that since Sept. 11 Osama bin Laden has recruited 18,000 men, while some U.S. Department of Defense officials say he’s down to his last 3,000. Seitz says that the average al-Qaeda grunt is not a bright young jihadi but a high school dropout who lives at home. In the wake of a withering attack by a hyperpower and its allies, al-Qaeda’s main preoccupation is with its own security and survival and not its anti-western strategy.

 Seitz concludes, “However tall bin Laden may loom as a scourge of civilizations, it is increasingly clear that his arsenal is as phony as his army is small – its shelves are bare of expertise and materiel alike.” Don’t get me wrong. Neither Seitz nor I seek to minimize the terrorist threat that we face, but it surely should be evaluated realistically. Why? It’s a resource-allocation question. It’s non-optimal to either underestimate or overestimate the terrorist threat. I’m sure that some might argue, “Williams, the government can’t make us too safe from terrorist threats!” That’s not smart.

 Being too safe from terrorist attacks can be costly in at least a couple of ways. The most costly is our willy-nilly acceptance of government intrusions on our liberties and privacy in the name of security. For just one example, banks, brokerage houses, insurers and other financial institutions have been turned into state informers who must notify the Treasury Department about “suspicious” transactions. A customer’s attempt to maintain financial privacy can be seen and reported as a suspicious transaction. Our financial records can be subpoenaed and examined even if there is no evidence of wrongdoing.

 Government officials have always wanted open access to our financial records; the war against terrorism gives them the cover to do so. Here’s what might be proof: How about an amendment to the Patriot Act whereby any information gathered under its provisions cannot be used in a court of law unless it can be tied to terrorist activity? I’m guessing that few politicians and law enforcement authorities would agree to such an amendment.

 Most vital to the conduct of any war, including a war on terrorism, is a vibrant, flexible economy. There’s a possibility that massive volumes of security regulations and massive security expenditures can weaken our economy and thereby threaten national security. Al-Qaeda type terrorism is not our only national security threat either now or in the future. Keep in mind it was our productive capacity that ultimately won the Cold War.