At what price? The high cost of terror - phobia

Author: William B. Cohn, J.D. 

Position: Business Administration Faculty

There was much head-scratching at the 2014 Forum 2000 Conference on “Democracy and its Discontents,” held in the Czech Republic October 12-15, 2014.

Panelists bemoaned resurgent authoritarianism, decline of civil liberties/human rights, loss of respect for law, and foolish foreign policy. How could this be when not so long ago conventional wisdom saw history marching toward global liberalization and progress?


A new book by New York Times veteran national security reporter James Risen provides a partial answer. According to Risen, the United States has pursued destructive self-defeating policies which have led the world astray. U.S.-led post-9/11 policy has been irrational because it is driven by a constant state of fear which has distorted perceptions and priorities. Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless Waris important reading for those who believe we must question the narrative set forth by government powerbrokers and amplified by the mainstream media.


Perhaps the greatest cost of anti-terror mania has been its erosion of press freedoms and a generalized chilling effect on speech. Democratic theory holds that good governance requires vigorous and robust open debate so that people may make well-informed and well-reasoned choices. A free and independent press is vital to a democratic society, as the watchdog disclosing information on matters of public concern to citizens. James Risen is very good at that – having won two Pulitzer prizes for his investigative reporting on dubious acts taken in the name of national security, and he may win a third for unveiling the NSA’s domestic spying activities. But those who hold the reins of power in government do not tolerate the official story being exposed as a lie, and so are threatening to send Risen to prison for doing his job (for more see


In what critics call its War on Journalism, the Obama administration has taken steps to criminalize the practice of aggressive investigative journalism, bringing criminal charges in eight cases, compared with three under all previous administrations combined. It has denigrated First Amendment jurisprudence by threatening journalists with criminal prosecution, including under the Espionage Act (a capital offense), for using leaked information. There have been raids of press offices and confiscation of reporters’ computers and notebooks.


Risen describes how the NYT under intense pressure from the White House killed the story revealing NSA metadata spying. It only ran the story when confronted with the embarrassing scenario that the information would soon be released in Risen’s book State of War. Most people view the NYT as the paper of record, the vanguard of an independent press, yet it caved to political pressure. The story was ready to be published before the 2004 presidential election, but did not run until well afterwards. Shouldn’t voters be informed before voting?


Pay Any Price documents, with case studies and data, the high costs of U.S. anti-terror policy. The price includes: erosion of individual freedoms; bloated inefficient security bureaucracies; stifling of dissent with steps to criminalize peaceful protest; the militarization of policing antagonizing local communities; misallocation of government lawyers, enabling systemic fraudulent lending practices and the economic woes this brought; increased racial and ethnic profiling/prejudice; increased outsourcing of core government functions; massive corruption; war profiteering; gross human rights violations; loss of moral standing; loss of life; creating new enemies; and more.


What Risen terms “the new homeland security industrial complex” is an overblown wasteful enterprise which throws money at combating terror in a way that encourages fraud and parasitism, not patriotism and security. His book provides many shocking cases of a mercenary culture of greed and abuse, with no regard for the common good.


Mr. Risen writes: “Of all the abuses America [and the world] have suffered at the hands of the government in its endless war on terror, possibly the worst has been the war on truth. On the one hand, the executive branch has expanded what it wants to know: something of a vast gathering of previously private truths. On the other hand, it has ruined lives to stop the public from gaining insight into its dark acts, waging a war on truth.”


Defenders of anti-terror policy counter that it is all worth it since there has not been another major terror attack on the U.S. for more than 13 years. They demand that critics of current policy prove that this would be so if these policies were not in place. But this is an unreasonable demand which cannot be met. After all, who among us can prove that we are not a terrorist?



The author, a member of the California Bar, lectures on law, ethics and critical thinking at UNYP and New York University. He will be participating in a panel discussion on anti-terror policy at the American Center in Prague on November 19, and in a teach-in organized by the UNYP student council. 

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