Terrorists Win When We Are Afraid

Monday, 18 Jan 2010 04:02 PM

By Herbert London

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As George Orwell noted the first duty of intelligent people is “the restatement of the obvious.” It is obvious or should be obvious that the goal of terrorists is terrorism. What that means precisely is not clear based on recent news accounts.

According to reports the United States escaped an enormous tragedy when a Nigerian, Umar Abdulmutallab, was apprehended when he attempted to blow up a Northwest flight from Africa to America via Amsterdam. Alas, that is accurate as far as it goes. Overlooked in this calculus is that a terrorist who gains access to a commercial flight has already achieved his goal, i.e. promote the fear of terrorism.

When Richard Reid attempted to blow up a Boeing 767 between Paris and Miami by detonating his sneakers, he too was restrained by fellow passengers, but in the process he promoted fear. The risks of air travel may be miniscule — if one relies on the comments of FAA officials — but for the average person Reid and Abdulmutallab have had a profound effect. The notion that any passenger can be a human time bomb has entered the consciousness of the public.

Moreover, it hardly establishes confidence when Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, assures the public “the system worked.” Clearly a risk-free air flight doesn’t exist, but newly instituted measures like magnetic resonance scans and banning blankets and bathroom visits during the last hour of a flight are not likely to mitigate anxiety about flying.

To compound the fear, the Obama administration has been briefed about the bombing technique attempted on flight 253 and about the Nigerian carrying the explosives. Since 2001, there have been a reported 28 failed terrorist attacks against the United States. It is obvious that despite administration claims to the contrary, this was not an isolated incident of “human error.” It is a failure up and down the proverbial food chain, from the White House to the clerk who issued a visa.

The president, as commander in chief, has the responsibility for national security, but the issue at hand is not only protecting lives; it involves the maintenance of psychological equilibrium. With each airborne thuggery, timidity sets in. This is the victory terrorists seek. When ordinary people are afraid to leave their homes, terrorism is gaining traction.

I cannot tally the number of trips not taken or the business ventures canceled because of flight fear. But I am sure, based on anecdotal evidence, that the numbers are substantial. One may fly through the sky, but flying friendly skies as the commercial suggests is not as likely as it once was.

Terrorism has altered our way of travel and our way of life. And in a sense, has forced almost every traveler to ask, Is this flight safe? Well, yes, most flights are safe, yet trepidation about terrorism has entered the equation, and it is not going to disappear in the short term.

Being on an airplane may lead to uneasiness, but terrorism has led to a special concern. As I see it, that special concern is terrorism’s victory. All the effort to thwart a full-scale attack is obviously necessary. However, the very fact that a known terrorist, whose father warned U.S. authorities about his son’s radical views, can gain access to a commercial flight has escalated the risk factor and the fear of flying.

Every time I enter an aircraft I look suspiciously at the other passengers. Are there terrorists on board? How would I know? What are the tell-tale signs? The very fact that I ask these questions indicates terrorism has gained entry into my mind set. That is the price we pay for conciliation and political correctness, a price that undermines the freedom we once enjoyed.


Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books).




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