Friday, August 11, 2006

Financial Times Editorial - The most powerful response to terrorism

Financial Times Editorial - The most powerful response to terrorism
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 11 2006 03:00 | Last updated: August 11 2006 03:00

The chaos in the UK's airports yesterday, caused by exhaustive efforts to screen and sift hand baggage, was a small victory for terrorists. The murder of hundreds of travellers would have been an incomparably larger one. That is the nature of the balancing act that we entrust to our government.

The immediate question will be whether the security clampdown prevented an attack. The police seem confident, but the truth is likely to emerge only over time. The police and intelligence services have not been discouraged by earlier false alarms. In June they launched a vast security operation in east London, based on intelligence reports. They shot a man but found no sign of the chemical weapons they had expected. Last year police shot and killed a Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, whom they had mistaken for a suicide bomber. Yet they also failed to anticipate the July 7 bombings last year, in which 52 people were murdered.

It has long been clear that no matter how sharp the intelligence services get, we cannot rely on their detective work as the only line of defence against terrorist attacks. If we are to believe the police, the UK's airports were wide open to attack on Wednesday. They were in a state of near paralysis yesterday. This is not sustainable.

Big airports need to upgrade their security so that they will be safer in times of low alert while continuing to function when security is tighter. There is no single answer: some new technologies promise to detect a wider range of explosives and weapons with a quick scan, while it would do no harm to hire more staff and open some more checkpoints to maintain the flow of passengers in a crisis.

Yet no system is perfectly secure, and even if the world's aircraft could be made secure at a reasonable cost in time and money, terrorists will always have other options as simple as truck bombs or explosives on trains and buses. There will be more attacks, perhaps deadly and dramatic ones.

The first response must be to adopt a foreign policy that saps terrorists of support without pandering to their demands. It should not be necessary to remind either the US or the British government that it is not possible simply to kill or catch all the terrorists until there are none left - a pointless strategy based on what one might call the "lump of terror" fallacy.

The second response must be a sense of proportion. More than 3,000 people died last year on our roads, but the roads stay open. Even the worst acts of terrorism reap their largest toll in hysterical responses. Scotland Yard's statement that they had disrupted a plot to cause "mass murder on an unimaginable scale" was alarmist even if it is true. Journalists - and terrorists - are perfectly capable of spreading hyperbole without any help from the police. The most powerful answer to terrorism is not to be terrified.


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