Facing the terrorist threat

Deadly attacks in London add impetus and urgency to the United States' continuing efforts to protect itself from another assault.

Attitude: The London bombings force us to cope with the threat of attack.

July 10, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

So, are we just going to have to get used to it?

Are a certain number of bombs and deaths and scares just going to be part of our lives for the foreseeable future?

That's a legitimate question in the wake of last week's bombings in London.

After all, these explosions were set off despite all the heightened precautions that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the March 2003 attacks on the subway in Madrid - and despite years of attacks on al-Qaida, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and decades of precautions put in place in London during bombing campaigns carried out by the Irish Republican Army.

It may well be that such events are going to be the price paid for living in an industrialized country in the 21st century as modernity struggles with fundamentalism for the hearts and minds of so many in the world. That's especially true in a globalized planet that throws these conflicting elements into cheek-by-jowl relationships.

But understanding and acknowledging that these attacks are going to happen does not mean giving up. It might mean just the opposite - persevering and preserving what is admirable in a society while struggling mightily against its foes. This would follow the path taken by Londoners 65 years ago as Hitler's planes bombed their city. They carried on, all the while fighting back with the best of their courage and technology.

"One aspect of a productive response to the attacks in London is to realize that these things could be a fact of life, that life has to go one while one maintains a vigilance that takes into account that something like this might happen again," says Arie Kruglanski, a social psychologist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I think it is also important in the face of a threat of this nature to maintain unity as opposed to disunity," says Kruglanski, co-director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.

"This relates to unity within nations - as one possibility is that these acts can split nations along the fault lines of various ethnic groups - and to unity within the civilized world because all of it is targeted by these fundamentalists," he says.

Certainly we encounter similarly life-threatening situations every day with hardly a notice. We get into a car and drive even though some 40,000 people are killed in automobile accidents every year. We either decide it's worth the risk, or ignore the risk that has just become part of the background noise in our society.

"We need to dispel the myth of the possibility of 100 percent security," says Kathleen Tierney, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who directs the National Hazards Center. "We don't have that when we get in a car or cross the street. We will never live in a zero-risk society."

At the same time, Tierney says, it is understood that people do not look at terrorism the way they look at car accidents or natural disasters, that terrorist attacks are a long way from background noise.

"That is just not how the public thinks about risks," she says. "Telling somebody that their chance of dying in a terrorist attack is less than being hit by lightning does not resonate with people."

So, no matter what the comparative odds, people will expect more to be done about terrorist attacks than about lightning strikes.

"We want to know that people understand our concerns and are taking reasonable and rational steps to deal with them," Tierney says.

If Sept. 11, 2001, was a giant alarm clock for the United States - making Americans cognizant of the threat of terrorism in a way they never had been before - then the London bombings might be another wake-up call.

Michael Greenberger worked on counter terrorism operations in the Clinton administration Justice Department, before the attacks of 9/11.

"If there was a silver lining to that day, it is that it made terrorism a household concern," he says. "Before it was only a concern of the experts.

"Most people didn't understand the threat, didn't know who Osama bin Laden was, didn't know about weapons of mass destruction," Greenberger says. "We are way past that now."

With "booster shots" such as the London bombing increasing support for taking action, Greenberger says that more must be done to protect the public, and that the federal government should find the money to pay for it.

"While you can't make public transportation a sealed system, you cannot make it 100 percent perfect, that doesn't mean that you can't stop many of these attacks," says Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "That's a very defeatist attitude. A lot of this you can stop."

Tierney points to the tremendous increase in security at airports. "People in this society, because we were attacked by planes [on 9/11], focused to an incredible degree on aviation safety, which is not easy to deal with, but is easier than things like trains, public transportation and the like.

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