Chasing Ghosts: the Policing of Terrorism, by John Mueller and Mark Stewart***

chasingghostsI suspect just about everyone in the USA, or who frequently has to travel to the USA, is heartily sick of the extreme security measures that raise our taxes through the roof and cause so many delays, inconveniences, and even the confiscation of ordinary products that cost us a fair amount of money, on those occasions that we foolishly forget not to take them with us on the plane. The racial profiling makes it even worse. And so I requested this DRC from Net Galley and Oxford University Press with the expectation that I would agree with it wholeheartedly and immediately form the virtual simpatico with its writers that readers form with their favorite authors. Alas, not so much.

It’s not a terrible book, but it’s also not a great one. The writing style comes across as strangely antagonistic, odd given that I was ready to agree with them when I began the book. They make a lot of good points, particularly in comparing the expenditures of the Federal government to the amount that was spent on the Cold War and the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950’s. But whenever I read scholarly nonfiction, I am inclined to check out the end notes early on, and I was struck by the large number of times Mueller and Stewart quoted themselves (or sometimes one or the other of themselves separately). Their other sources were more likely to be newspapers and magazines rather than primary documents, which were used sparingly.

My sense is that if you’re going to challenge the status quo, you have to roll up your sleeves and do it right. In this case, a worthy thesis, at least to some extent, is less credible than it might have been with more diligent research and more legitimate scholarship.

My gut was inclined to rate this book two stars rather than three, but then I realized that my gut was responding to the ISIS mass killings in France. For the writers, it’s just pure dumb bad luck that the real terrorists created such tremendous outrage and heartfelt sympathy throughout the Western world, and in doing so underscored the reason such stringent security measures are in place, just as their book was nearing publication.

The most compelling argument against the Patriot Act and all of its associated agencies and agents is that when someone is willing to die in order to commit a mass killing, nobody and nothing can really stop them. The security measures being utilized are effective against people that want to enter an establishment or a vehicle and kill as many people in it as possible, then walk away and live to kill more people another day. This wasn’t the primary argument Mueller and Stewart rolled out. Their main argument, that the Bill of Rights is being trampled by the very government that was invented to uphold the Constitution, is a good one and I think would have been easier to get behind had events not unfolded as they did, and of course, had the source material been more impressive; yet the safety of all of us will always preclude individual liberties. So in a sense, ISIS gives the conservative, locked-down wing of the ruling class a red-carpet invitation to clamp down on civil liberty; but that would not have made a book that would sell, and perhaps that is why the authors didn’t make this their focus.

If this is an area of interest to you, you can get a copy November 30. I wouldn’t pay hard cover price for it unless you have tremendous interest and very deep pockets, though.

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