Second: the many “copycat” and “self-starter” groups that have been “inspired” by al-Qaeda and that have sprung up in England, Spain, Indonesia, and elsewhere will continue to pose the threat of attacks. The threat is likely to be more acute in Europe than in the United States, where the Arab-origin and Muslim population has been far better assimilated and far more patriotic, despite pressures and provocations, than elsewhere. Politically motivated violence has been a reality of modern life, and will continue to be so. The news, and where it happened, reinforces this point.
Third: the greatest threat posed by these groups is not the damage they can do directly, but rather the self-defeating, irrational, or excessive responses they can goad a target country into making. Osama bin Laden has boasted that the attack of 9/11 cost at most $500,000 to launch and provoked more than $500 billion in military and security spending by the United States; a million-to-one “payoff.” As several military officers and strategists emphasized in the article, the United States can reduce but never entirely eliminate the threat of terrorist attack. What it can do is think about the way it will respond when threats arise – like the one this week. (For instance: banning liquids from flights seems an eminently sensible immediate response. Banning books, magazines, and reading matter may merely amplify the damage done to the air-travel business.)
Immediately after news of the arrests broke, President Bush took the opportunity to remind the country that it was “at war with Islamic fascists.” No such reminder came from the British authorities, who had actually broken the plot. This is consistent with Britain’s response after the subway bombings one year ago, when the government, press, and public prided themselves on the speed with which life returned to normal – while the police and intelligence agencies hunted down the responsible parties. It is also consistent with the argument that an open-ended state of war has become a major handicap in the long-term effort to penetrate potential terrorist cells, dry up their supply of recruits, and deny them shelter and support from other Muslims.
Why? A state of war with no clear end point makes it more likely for a country to overreact in ways that hurt itself, especially by losing the moral high ground that was crucial to America's victory in the Cold War. It also makes it harder for the country to do the patient work of tracking down, catching, and thwarting the "copycat" groups, since that depends so heavily on relations with allied countries and with sympathetic Muslim groups. Remember: it was police work, surveillance, and patient cultivation of sources that broke the airline bombing ring – not speeches about a state of war.
If Americans lose their heads when they hear of a threat, they do the terrorists’ work for them. They can harm themselves in short- and long-term ways far more than any hostile group could do. The effort to destroy terrorist groups goes on. It is more likely to succeed if the war is over.