Jeff Goldberg interviewed security expert Bruce Schneier in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bombing. At the end of the interview, Schneier said something in the first paragraph of his response to Goldberg that is said far too rarely in the discussions about terrorism:
Goldberg: Do you think it’s only a matter of time before an airplane is blown up, or is this something that is still avoidable?
Schneier: The fact that we even ask this question illustrates something fundamentally wrong with how our society deals with risk. Of course 100% security is impossible; it has always been impossible and always will be. We’ll never get the murder, burglary, or terrorism rate down to zero; 42,000 people will die each year in car crashes in the U.S. for the foreseeable future; life itself will always include risk. But that’s okay. Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy our country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage.
I want President Obama to get on national television and project indomitability. I want him to dial back the hyperbole, and remind us that our society can’t be terrorized. I want him to roll back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures. We’d do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable. The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.
I think that the last paragraph places too much faith in the “indomitability” of our society; I don’t think any human society merits that complete confidence. But overall, Schneier’s right. We can’t eliminate the risk of terrorism, even though we can work harder and smarter to prevent it.