The “Cut & paste” section of today’s Australian has a tantalising excerpt from a piece by David Bell in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times on “Putting 9/11 into perspective”. It’s well worth going to the Times site for the full version.

Bell’s message is that the apocalyptic rhetoric of America’s response to terrorism since 2001 has been grossly out of proportion to the actual threat. Although, as he says, al-Qaeda are “hate-filled fanatics”, “desire is not the same thing as capacity”: an enemy can be implacable, but still not dangerous enough to require the sort of total mobilisation of say World War II.

On the contrary, “by the standards of past wars, the war against terrorism has so far inflicted a very small human cost on the United States.” And Bell sums up:

… the war against terrorism has not yet been much of a war at all, let alone a war to end all wars. It is a messy, difficult, long-term struggle against exceptionally dangerous criminals who actually like nothing better than being put on the same level of historical importance as Hitler — can you imagine a better recruiting tool? To fight them effectively, we need coolness, resolve and stamina. But we also need to overcome long habit and remind ourselves that not every enemy is in fact a threat to our existence.

Australia’s Hugh White made a similar point on the most recent anniversary of 11 September: he said that the “message that terrorism poses an existential threat”, “which is apparently self-evident to so many people today”, would seem “bewildering” to future historians.

Bell is a historian, and he’s already bewildered. He suggests that as the Enlightenment promise of perpetual peace has been repeatedly disappointed, each time we have felt the need to demonise our opponent in order to justify the necessity of fighting.

There’s probably some truth in this, but I suspect the main explanation is more mundanely political. The apocalyptic response suits people in power for their own purposes, and popular fears are stoked accordingly.

The US administration didn’t decide to throw away the rule book because it saw terrorism as an existential threat: it decided to portray terrorism as an existential threat because it wanted to throw away the rule book.