James Fallows Completes Me

In reference to my post last week lambasting those who argue that deaths from terrorism are not much different (in part because they are no more numerous) than deaths from bathtub drownings, my colleague Mr. Fallows issued a rejoinder, in which he makes the point that, while it is true that the impact -- economic, political, social, constitutional, spiritual -- of terrorism can be both different and profound, it need not be, if we as a society decide to be more resilient and less panic-prone. Jim is gracious enough to credit me with also believing this, perhaps because we once discussed the brave reaction of Israelis to terror attacks. But more on that below. Here is Jim:

It is precisely because people and societies can panic about terrorist threats -- and often did ten years ago -- that both the threats and the panic are worth doing everything possible to minimize. Anyone who has ever thought about the long-term effort against terrorism realizes that the threat of attacks will never completely go away. If a society is large, open, and diverse, that is simply impossible. It's like "eliminating" crime, or evil. Or like eliminating the chance of another Columbine-style schoolyard shooting, which is "terrorism" in every way except the conventional name. All of these deserve the best possible preventive efforts, but "best possible" will never mean perfect.

Therefore the next step is to avoid magnifying the terrorizing effects of a murderous attack, and instead to do what we can to keep it in perspective. Parents send their children to school every day, even though we know that some day there will be "another Columbine" (or "another Virginia Tech" or, away from the schoolyard, "another Tucson"). School shootings are absolute evil, which we should take far more urgently than we do. But when they occur, the usual response is to try to dampen rather than intensify a reaction of generalized fearfulness and panic. That is how we should react to something called "terrorism" as well. Which is what Mueller was trying to do.

I think Jeffrey Goldberg agrees with this; but I wanted to spell out that what he presents as something terrorism "can" create is something worth doing our utmost to resist.

Of course I agree with many of these points. But one of the things Mueller misses is the potential for even-greater disruption and chaos terrorists could cause. There is no chance that the bathtubs of America will unite and conspire to drown more people than they already drown. But there is a plausible chance that terrorists (the super-empowered terrorists about whom we read so much) could figure out a way to gain hold of a chemical, biological or radiological weapon and kill large numbers of people, even more than were killed on 9/11. So when we worry about terrorism, we also worry about its as-yet unfulfilled potential.

That being said, we can look to a place like Israel, which suffers more continuously, and deeply, from terrorism than does the U.S., as the sort of country that has benefited from adopting a posture of resilience. During the early part of the last decade, when the bombing of civilian buses was a regular feature of life in Israel's cities, parents still put their children on these buses to get them to school. To not send their children to school would have been to give up. The story I was referring to earlier had to do with the Cafe Hillel in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem that was attacked by a suicide bomber eight years ago this week. The bomber murdered seven people and wounded more than 50 others. The next day, Cafe Hillel reopened, and was filled with customers (including me), who were there to signal to Hamas that it would not win. I agree that we should do our utmost to keep our balance in the wake of terror events; I also acknowledge that it is very hard to do so -- yet another reason to fight terrorism before it reaches our shores.

One of the challenges of the 9/11 attacks was that Americans were not accustomed to grappling with terrorism in their cities, as the British were, or the Israelis. Combine the newness of the phenomenon with the fact that 9/11 was the biggest, most devastating terrorist attack in history, and the fallout was inevitable: People were destabilized, and government was destabilized as well. (I remind Brits who argue that the "overreaction" to the events of 9/11 was proof of our tendency toward hysteria that the decades-long "Troubles" of Northern Ireland took a total of roughly 3,000 lives, about the same number of people who were killed in a single morning in America.) My point: We should foster resilience, but the way in which human beings respond to terrorism is understandable, and also partially inevitable.