Michael Chertoff is a smart man, and he has set a much better tone for the Department of Homeland Security since taking over as its chief than his hapless predecessor, Tom Ridge. Chertoff talks convincingly about managing risks and making it easier for travelers and importer-exporters to do their business efficiently but safely. He is finishing a thoroughgoing review of how we spend taxpayers’ money on anti-terrorism measures. And he has asked the obvious question of why Pittsburgh should be considered as vulnerable a target as New York City.
But in the wake of today’s coordinated morning rush-hour bombings in London, Chertoff did precisely the wrong thing. Without receiving any new credible intelligence, he raised DHS’s already discredited color alert to orange, saying he wanted to wake up mass transit authorities. In the process, he gave ever-jittery TV anchors one more reason to prattle on about danger in the United States, even though today’s bombings occurred in a different country thousands of miles away and were, comparatively speaking, not an operational success for the jihadists who seem likely to have been behind them.
Perhaps it bears repeating that terrorists seek to alter the way in which we lead our lives, to close open societies, and to turn liberals into authoritarians. Instead of ratcheting up the threat level and along with it public fears, Chertoff should have told Americans what he most certainly knows: that national security officials and local police have been worried about a subway or train attack since last year’s bombings in the Madrid transit system, and that they have little reason to be more worried now. Then quietly—rather than with a fuss—he should have increased the police presence in major metropolitan subways so that commuters returning from work tonight would see the effect of the government’s concern.
At the risk of seeming callous, the other message Chertoff should have sent is that Americans need to toughen up a bit. Be vigilant; don’t panic. Look at how the British are handling these attacks. Their endurance of the Irish Republican Army’s 30-year terror campaign has made them masters at picking up the pieces after an attack and moving on. Did they institute a national alert today? No. Did they close down the subways indefinitely? No. Some theaters canceled shows scheduled for tonight, but that was a small and sensible measure taken to lessen the pressures on London’s transportation system as it stretched to the limit to get people home from work. Could we possibly expect this sort of sane moderation had Los Angeles been the bombers’ target rather than London?
In the next few days, all the nations targeted by extremists have a chance to turn the cowardly crime in London into a major psychological defeat for the jihadist fighters. The casualty figures, however unwelcome, make clear that al-Qaida or its affiliates didn’t get much bang for their buck. In addition, the attack revealed the limits of the terrorists’ technical capabilities. The bombings involved relatively crude and conventional weapons. They were no more sophisticated than the twin African bombings of 1998 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, which suggests that for all their claims, the jihadists don’t yet have weapons of mass destruction. And while it’s bad news that the terrorists had a sufficient network in London or perhaps France to carry off this series of bombings, in the absence of follow-up attacks, those networks appear to be small.
Yet Chertoff’s raising the alert today struck the wrong balance between promoting vigilance and calming irrational fears. That’s because his department is trapped by the claims that Vice President Dick Cheney, in particular, made leading up to the 2004 election about a Republican monopoly on counterterrorism. By overpromising security—and implying that Democrats neither understood terrorism nor were prepared to fight it—the Bush administration has given itself little choice but to overshoot in response to any terrorist attack anywhere. Chertoff’s response today was about one thing: cover. If there is an attack on the Washington Metro tomorrow, the federal government will be able to say to commuters, “Well, we warned you.”