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Putting Terrorism in Perspective

Gwynne Dyer

As terrorists go, this was "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight." One of the would-be London bombers on June 29 drove erratically down Haymarket Street in central London - presumably affected by the fumes from the gas cylinders and gasoline containers that were the heart of his makeshift car-bomb - before crashing into a garbage bin, getting out and running away. Another parked his explosives-packed car illegally, so it was towed away. The third attack was at Glasgow International Airport on the following day, but nobody was hurt except one of the attackers, who set himself on fire.

More competent terrorists might have killed dozens of people, of course, but it's safe to say that this incident will be taken more seriously in the United States than it is in Britain itself or anywhere else in Europe. An occasional terrorist attack is one of the costs of doing business in the modern world. You just have to bring a sense of proportion to the problem, and in general people in Europe do.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued the obligatory statement that Britain faces "a serious and continuous threat" and that the public "need to be alert" at all times, but there were none of the efforts to pump up the threat, the declarations that civilization itself was under attack, that were standard issue when Tony Blair was running the show. Blair has gone off to bring the blessings of peace to the Middle East, and the British government is no longer compelled to seize on every passing event as evidence that it was right to invade Iraq.

Blair can't do that much harm in the Middle East, as there's no hope of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in the foreseeable future anyway. The Russians nearly vetoed Blair's appointment, and the British Foreign Office is said to be in an "institutional sulk," but it doesn't really matter much. Neither do the car-bombs that didn't explode in London and Glasgow.

Most major European countries had already been through some sort of terrorist crisis well before the current fashion for "Islamist" terrorism: the IRA in Britain, the OAS in France, ETA in Spain, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the Red Brigades and their neo-fascist counterparts in Italy. Most European cities have also been heavily bombed in a real war within living memory, which definitely puts terrorist attacks into a less impressive category. So most Europeans, while they dislike terrorist attacks, do not obsess about them. They know that they are likelier to win the lottery than to be hurt by terrorists.

Russians are also pretty cool about the occasional terrorist attacks linked to the war in Chechnya, and Indians are positively heroic in their refusal (most of the time) to be panicked by terrorist attacks that have taken more lives there than all the attacks in the West since terrorist techniques first became widespread in the 1960s. In almost all of these countries, despite the efforts of some governments to convince the population that terrorism is an existential threat of enormous size, the vast majority of the people don't believe it.

Whereas in the United States, most people do believe it. A majority of Americans have finally figured out that the invasion of Iraq really had nothing to do with fighting terrorism, but they certainly have not understood that terrorism itself is only a minor threat. "We have a threat out there like we've never faced before," said actor, former senator and potential presidential candidate Fred Thompson last month - on Fox television, admittedly, but they wouldn't have called him a nutcase or laughed in his face on the other networks either.

"I don't think the (American people) realize that this has been something that's been going on for a few hundred years, and our enemies have another 100-year plan," Thompson continued. "Whether it's Madrid, whether it's London, whether it's places that most people have never heard of, they're methodically going around trying to undermine our allies and attack people in conventional ways, while they try to develop non-conventional ways, and get their hands on a nuclear capability, and ultimately to see a mushroom cloud over an American city."

There has been only one major terrorist attack in the United States since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and that one, on Sept. 11, is now almost six years in the past. So how have Americans been convinced that their duty and their destiny in the 21st century is to lead the world in a titanic, globe-spanning "long war" against terrorism?

Inexperience is one reason: American cities have never been bombed in war, so Americans have no standard of comparison that would shrink terrorism to its true importance in the scale of threats that face any modern society. But the other is relentless official propaganda: The Bush administration has built its whole brand around the "war on terror" since 2001, so the threat must continue to be seen as huge and universal.

As ridiculous as it sounds to outsiders, Americans are regularly told that their survival as a free society depends on beating the "terrorists." They should treat those who say such things as fools or deliberate liars, but they don't. So the manipulators of public opinion in the White House and the more compliant sectors of the U.S. media will give bigger play to the British bombings-that-weren't than Britain's own government and media have, and they will get away with it.

Gwynne Dyer, an independent journalist, writes from London. He can be reached at

© 2007 Journal

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