By Philip Bobbitt
Published Sunday, July 10, 2005, in The New York Times.
Reprinted with the author's permission.
London—With their legendary British fortitude, Londoners are already riding the subways and buses that proved so deadly during Thursday's terrorist attacks. Making sense of what happened, however, will take much longer - for the British and the rest of the world. And as in most crises, there are a lot of early, false assessments that may take hold and become a standard account. If we let this happen, it will not serve us well in the coming months and years of our struggle against terrorism.
For example, from my window in St. James's, I can see half a dozen Union Jacks at half-staff. It's a moving and traditional sight, but I see it as a reminder that we must guard against the most natural of historical habits, the comforting tendency to assimilate the novel into the familiar.
Most events, most of the time, are slight variations on the past. We think we know terrorist bombings in London because of our experience with the Irish Republican Army, which attacked the Thatcher cabinet at Brighton in 1984 and fired a mortar at No. 10 Downing Street in 1991. We think we know war and its bombs because we remember the aerial attacks on London during World War II. So we are inclined to conclude that what happened last week was not an act of war, and must be borne with the same political attitudes that eventually neutralized the I.R.A.
But if we look for only a moment at Iraq, where battling terrorists clearly requires more forces than defeating Saddam Hussein did, we ought to see that the nature of war is changing from the model of World War II or even the Persian Gulf War. And if we consider the apocalyptic goals of Osama bin Laden and the practices of the Taliban when they were in power, we ought to know that we are not dealing with Gerry Adams's Sinn Fein.
Another trap we must avoid is thinking that because the scale of the London attacks did not approach those of 9/11, they are somehow less worrisome. The execution of simultaneous attacks requires sophisticated planning, because with each team the risk of exposure and mishap increases exponentially.
It seems likely that the perpetrators were themselves low-level local operatives following orders from more sophisticated leaders who financed the enterprise, secured the timers and explosives, and planned the attacks with a shrewd political sensibility. This effort to affect political events makes the London attacks more like the Madrid bombings last year than like 9/11, and it indicates that further attacks can be expected.
We must also be careful not to take comfort in the relative modesty of the number of fatalities. The objectives of these attacks were political and economic, and the point has been made. Just because a mugger with a gun doesn't shoot you when he takes your wallet doesn't mean he couldn't if he wanted to. In the 21st century, terrorism is the extension of diplomacy by other means - which are unlikely to diminish in lethality in the near term - and these means will be calibrated to the political objectives sought by terrorist networks and to the availability of weapons. Neither the goals nor the means can be said to be modest.
Last, we must avoid the apparently irresistible temptation to conclude that our views on the war against terror, whatever they are, have been vindicated by these awful massacres. What happened on Thursday was not about Iraq or even Afghanistan. Even if Saddam Hussein had continued his despotic rule in Baghdad, Britain would not have been given a free pass from a global terrorist network that seeks to remove Western cultural, economic and political commerce entirely from much of the world.
And yet, in a sense, the London attacks were about Afghanistan and Iraq. They are part of the terrible price we are paying for resisting terror - whether it is in the form of a theocratic regime that rules by terror, or a global network that outsources its atrocities, or a wealthy dictatorship that clandestinely and unlawfully seeks to purchase weapons of mass destruction.
But there is a lesson in these attacks that was written for us long ago: Be sober. Be watchful. Our enemy prowls around us like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.
Philip Bobbitt, a former senior director at the National Security Council, is the author of the forthcoming "War Against Terror."
Professor Philip Bobbitt's Web Page: http://www.utexas.edu/law/faculty/pbobbitt/