The rapid and violent rise of the Islamic State group from the turmoil of Syria and Iraq, combined with a number of “lone wolf” attacks, has again placed the threat of terrorism center stage.
In Japan, fears have been stoked by the executions of Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s clumsy intervention into Middle Eastern politics. Abe responded with language that has been commonplace for politicians since 9/11, announcing that “we will not cave in to terror” and vowing “to make the terrorists pay the price.”
Also following what has become a well-worn script, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has proposed stronger security measures to protect against potential terrorist attacks. Reflecting these fears, this year’s Tokyo marathon had more than 10,000 personnel providing security for an event with about 35,000 participants, while also banning participants from bringing plastic beverage bottles and other water containers to the sporting event.
The sorry fates of Yukawa and Goto made the barbarity of Islamic State much more immediately relevant for Japanese, especially given the warning of the Islamic State militant that “because of your reckless decision to take part in an unwinnable war, this knife will not only slaughter Kenji [Goto], but will also carry on and cause carnage wherever your people are found. So let the nightmare for Japan begin.”
Such words and deeds are meant to inspire fear, but they should not cloud a more rational assessment of the situation. It is worth emphasizing an obvious but important point: Yukawa and Goto were abducted while traveling in a warzone where the risk of being kidnapped was very real and well known. Quite simply, unless other nationals go adventuring to dangerous and unstable areas, they should have little to fear.
Certainly Islamic State has staged and broadcast executions with a global audience in mind. Nonetheless, its power and reach remains much more geographically limited to parts of Syria and Iraq. Despite the United States becoming increasingly engaged with fighting Islamic State, its top representatives have readily admitted that Islamic State does not pose a direct threat. Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, has admitted that “we know of no credible information that [Islamic State] is planning to attack the homeland at present.” There are serious reasons we should be concerned about Islamic State, but at this stage, they remain a localized problem, and do not yet represent a major threat to the U.S., and certainly not to Japan.
To date, two Japanese have been killed by Islamic State. Indeed, purely looking at statistics, mochi poses a much greater threat to Japanese. Nine people died from choking on the sticky rice cakes this year, up from four last year. Despite the number of mochi deaths doubling in the space of one year, the response has not been to launch a “war on mochi,” but to recognize it as a risk that a certain group of people (the elderly) need to be careful of.
As the great specter of Islamic extremism rises again, it is vital that we place the actual risk it poses in proportion.
The history of the U.S. and other Western democracies after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has been a depressing tale: a massive over-reaction to a very limited threat. According to The Costs of War Project, the “9/11 wars” have resulted in the deaths of more than 350,000 people due to direct war violence, with more than $4.4 trillion spent and obligated by the U.S. These are truly staggering figures, and it is certainly valid to ask whether terrorism or the response it has provoked has ultimately caused more damage and suffering.
Western democracies have been undermined through an excessive concern with security leading to a major diminution of liberties and a considerable expansion of surveillance in the name of protecting freedom.
In the future, when historians reflect on the West’s response to 9/11, they will surely wonder how such powerful countries could be so fearful of such a limited and specific threat, with the “war on terror” likely being judged as a tragic miscalculation.
Considering how the threat of terrorism has repeatedly been used by politicians to justify extending state powers, we should be very wary of attempts to link the tragic outcomes of Yukawa and Goto to constitutional revision. There are valid reasons to reconsider Japan’s international role, and as part of this, there should be a genuine and open debate about whether the Constitution should be changed.
Tensions with a rising and increasingly assertive China are real, North Korea’s fragile but aggressive regime remains unpredictable, and the dysfunction of America’s political system weakens its role as a provider of Japanese security.
Yet terrorism is not a major threat to Japan, and attempts to link it to constitutional revision are deeply problematic. Indeed, if anything, Japan’s constitutional restrictions have likely reduced the risk of terrorism, by preventing the country from playing a more active role in supporting America’s deeply misguided “war on terror.”
The atrocities of Islamic State are certainly shocking, and the beheadings of Yukawa and Goto should be resolutely condemned, but it is vital that they are placed in perspective.
Japan has been fortunate to avoid the worst excesses that the U.S. and other democracies have engaged in following 9/11. It would be a great tragedy to repeat their mistakes now.
Exaggerated claims by politicians about terrorism should be received with great caution. Indeed, as we approach the fourth anniversary of the triple disaster of March 11, it should be very evident what qualifies as a real threat to the safety and wellbeing of people in Japan.
Christopher Hobson is an assistant professor of political science at Waseda University, and a visiting research fellow at United Nations University.