A rather weak punch

The Brits are carrying on their normal lives in the aftermath of today’s attack. That’s both admirable and rational. If this is the best the terrorists can do, they pose no substantial threat to our way of life unless we react hysterically.

Dan Drezner quotes David Plotz and Andrew Sullivan on British phlegm in response to the London subway attack.

The comparison with U.S. reaction after 9/11 isn’t really a fair one, given the two-orders-of-magnitude difference in the casualty levels. Nonetheless, the tendency of the U.S. media to whip up as much hysteria as possible, and the strong response that tendency finds within the public, does not serve us well, because hysteria magnifies the impact of any terrorist action when our interest is in minimizing that impact. (The greatest triumph of the Iranian hostage-takers in 1979 was ABC’s decision to make the embassy takeover a running story under the tagline “America Held Hostage.”)

Cold-hearted as it sounds to say it with the rubble still smoking, if the London and Madrid attacks represent terrorists’ best shot at Western capitals, it isn’t really very impressive. Fewer than fifty dead in London, a year after fewer than two hundred dead in Madrid, is pretty good as mass murder but underwhelming as warfare.

Should we spare no effort to hunt down the killers and those who organized and financed them? Absolutely! But turn ourselves upside down, in a — probably vain — attempt to thwart the next attack? I don’t think so.

More people will die in drunk-driving accidents in England this week than the bombers killed this morning. That doesn’t make mass murder any less horrible, but the brute fact is that — by contrast with the situation in Israel or Iraq — the terrorists haven’t to date inflicted serious damage by wartime standards, or the sort of damage that requires or justifies major social re-engineering to stop it.

Preventing a once-a-year repetition of this sort of attack somewhere in the Western world wouldn’t, for example, justify the expense and inconvenience of doing airport-style screening in the subways. (For that matter, I’m not sure that airport-style screening is justified in the airports.)

This is truly a case where the best — perhaps the only — defense is a good offense.

Footnote Of course it helps if the offense is directed at actual terrorists, as in Afghanistan, rather than surrogate targets such as the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. Note that George W. Bush and Glenn Reynolds agree with George Galloway and Barbara Lee that overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrowing the Ba’ath in Iraq were similar cases. By contrast, the reality-based view holds that the Taliban were, and the Ba’ath were not, engaged in directly supporting al-Qaeda, so that attacking Afghanistan was, and attacking Iraq was not, a cogent response to 9/11.

I supported the Iraq war based on the belief — now shown to have been false — that Saddam Hussein was actively acquiring nuclear and biological weapons capacity. The claim that the attack on Iraq was somehow part of a counterterror strategy never really passed the giggle test.

Update and correction Ceteris Paribus corrects my statistics on English road deaths: there are about 70 total road deaths per week in the entire UK, which makes it implausible that there are 50 attributable to drunk driving in England alone. The right figure must be more like 20. (I was projecting in my head from US figures, and seem to have dropped a zero someplace.) So the above needs to be amended to read: More people will die in drunk-driving accidents in England thismonth than the bombers killed this morning.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com