Barkun evaluates terrorism threat in ‘Chasing Phantoms’
In his 11th book, “Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security Since 9/11” (UNC Press, 2011), Professor Michael Barkun examines the huge gap that exists between the realities of the terrorism threat facing the United States and the everyday discourse about that threat among government officials and the general public. He argues that an irrational, emotion-driven obsession with dangers that cannot be seen has played—and continues to play—an unacknowledged role in sustaining the climate of fear that drives the U.S. “war on terror.” It is past time, Barkun concludes, “to try to put policy on a more rational foundation.”
Barkun, a professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and an expert on domestic terrorism and political extremism, suggests that it’s sometimes difficult for us to make a clear distinction between our own fears and the reality of dangers in the world, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Back then, we knew where dangers lay and how the world divided between good and evil. Since the early 1990s, however, that hasn’t been the case, and there exists what Barkun calls an “enemy vacuum,” which is often filled with the figure of the terrorist. The question is, he asks: “Do we do that because the terrorist is really an immense danger, or have we magnified the figure of the terrorist because we need to have the vacuum filled?”
According to Barkun, “There needs to be a sense of proportion, an ability to gauge the significance of terrorism alongside the other issues that face the United States—Iran, China, energy, the environment, the economy, and so on. Immediately after 9/11, terrorism was seen as the only issue that mattered. We know now that that fixation on terrorism distorted policy, that it was neither the only problem nor the most important problem.”
“Chasing Phantoms” offers a straightforward, jargon-free look at the role and structure of the Department of Homeland Security and how U.S. terrorism policy is crafted. In doing so, Barkun demonstrates that U.S. homeland security policy reflects significant non-rational thinking and offers new recommendations for effective—and rational—policymaking.