To defeat the terrorists, never let them see you sweat

November 25, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

LONDON -- We've all had our ups and downs since 9/11, but last week's events in London tested even my congenital optimism.

I was a participant in the 50th anniversary celebration of the Marshall scholarships. The Marshalls were created by the British government to honor Secretary of State George Marshall and to express Britain's gratitude for the Marshall Plan. Over the last 50 years, some 1,400 Americans have attended Oxford, Cambridge and other British universities on Marshall scholarships, paid for by British taxpayers. Twenty-eight years ago, I was one of those lucky Americans.

On Wednesday, for the 50th anniversary, the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission gathered all the Marshall scholars now in Britain and British dignitaries who have supported the program, with Prince Charles presiding. The event, held at the University of London, was timed for President Bush's visit, because Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the keynote speaker, was one of five Americans being presented with the first Marshall medals. There were a few protest banners waiting for Mr. Powell around campus, but nothing extraordinary. Prince Charles showed up with what appeared to be one security guard.

But Mr. Powell canceled because of "security concerns."

Every American I talked to was both sad and embarrassed -- sad that an event intended to affirm the Atlantic alliance turned into another small victory for terrorists; sad that all these young Marshall scholars didn't get to see their secretary of state being honored and to hear his thoughts; and embarrassed that some nameless security officer decided Mr. Powell couldn't brave a few protesters, but Prince Charles could.

But this is more lament than criticism. I wouldn't want the responsibility of deciding when the president or secretary of state should appear in public.

These are tough calls. It's always hard to know where the line should be. But I fear we're starting to cross it in ways that could actually be dangerous for us all. Whether we're talking about our public officials or your family deciding whether to vacation in Istanbul, we all have to learn to live with more insecurity. Because terrorists are in the fear business, and every time we visibly imprison ourselves, they win another small victory and become more emboldened.

I fear that the kinds of security officials who pulled the plug on Mr. Powell are becoming the new priesthood of our age. These "terrorism experts" have unchallenged authority to curb our freedom in the name of freedom. Some of them know their stuff. But some wouldn't recognize the 6-foot-5-inch Osama bin Laden if he walked past them dribbling a basketball and dragging his dialysis machine.

Bin Laden is supposed to be on the run -- not us. What good is driving him into a cave if our secretary of state has to live in a bubble? When Mr. Powell can't deliver a speech in London -- London -- then why travel anywhere? And if diplomats can't travel or circulate, then diplomacy becomes virtual. And virtual diplomacy leads to virtual allies, and virtual allies lead to no allies at all. If communities of shared values can't share their values, where are we?

I called an Israeli friend, the political theorist Yaron Ezrahi, to fulminate about this, and he perked me up. He told me he had just been to the reopening of the Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem, which a suicide bomber blew up a few weeks ago. "It was so crowded you couldn't find a seat," said Mr. Ezrahi. "Freedom is the only guardian of freedom." Which is why Israelis insist that any bus stop blown up by suicide bombers be rebuilt by the next day. Message to suicide bombers: You're dead, and we're not afraid. That is the best deterrence.

The events of 9/11 were a new and dangerous form of terrorism -- "terrorism not meant to stimulate political concessions but to destroy our way of life," notes John Chipman, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. We had to react, but we must stop overreacting. Terrorists win when they prevent us from enjoying and spreading our values. We defeat them not just by how we react, but by how we don't react.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times and appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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