'Weekend Edition Sunday' interview / Chertoff's folly

Audio here from my interview yesterday (from Shanghai) with Liane Hansen of NPR, looking back on my Sept 2006 Atlantic article arguing that the best way to hold down the threat and consequences of terrorism was to declare the "War on Terrorism" over. (Original article here; related Atlantic material here and here.) The question arose, of course, in light of Michael Chertoff's "gut feeling" that another strike might be imminent.

I didn't think to put it this bluntly over the radio, but Sec. Chertoff's comment ran about as contrary to all prevailing thought on dealing with terrorism (except, perhaps, the thoughts of GW Bush and RB Cheney) as is possible to do.

Through the annals of "asymmetric," terrorist-style attacks on civilian populations and established powers, it is not the attack itself that does the greatest damage to the target country. The reaction to the attack is far more important and destructive. Classic illustration: a nationalist-anarchist assassinates two members of the Habsburg royal family in Sarajevo. Reaction includes: World War I, with tens of millions dead around the world.

My original Atlantic article quoted David Kilcullen -- an Australian military officially highly regarded by American strategists (except for Chertoff, apparently) and heavily involved in "surge" strategy in Iraq -- this way:

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. "Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

By this logic, the job of leaders in a "target" country is to support every police and investigative effort that might detect, thwart, or intercept potential attackers -- and also to reduce rather than magnify public panic about the risks people face. This is essentially what British leaders, Blair and now Brown, have done. Their police have detected real threats; afterwards, public officials have said: there is an ongoing risk, we're doing our best to cope with it, but meanwhile get on with your lives. Don't do the attackers' work for them by increasing the harm they do to the economic and social strength of our own society. Don't live under vague "gut feeling" fears that something very bad is about to occur. If you do that, then in the parlance of the early 2000s, "the terrorists will have won."