Despite the appalling attack in Boston, the organizers of the London Marathon have announced that the race will go ahead on Sunday as planned. This is the right decision.
The British public, and Londoners in particular, have an unfortunately long experience of terrorism. To an extent they’ve learned to live with the threat the hard way. In the 20 years between 1973 and 1993, there were around 35 terrorist attacks in London, conducted by the IRA. Almost all were in public places and designed to cause casualties among ordinary citizens.
It was a tense time. But whatever people’s personal thoughts about the conflict in Northern Ireland, no one believed that the British Government should be intimidated by violence. There was no public pressure for a change in policy because of fear.
The authorities did what they could to prevent attacks: Trash cans disappeared, bag searches increased and many more policemen were armed (mainly with concealed weapons). But the public did not blame the government when another bomb went off, it blamed the terrorists. And the terrorists, who were out to change policy rather than to kill everyone in twos and threes, realized eventually that “the mainland campaign,” as they called it, was not achieving the result that they sought.
The acceptance by society that even the most stringent security measures can never provide a 100% guarantee of safety is one of the most important steps towards defeating terrorism. If a government promises its citizens complete protection from terrorism, it is setting itself up for failure.
In such circumstances, the terrorists are likely to see more opportunity than deterrent. As the IRA stated notoriously after Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher survived a bomb attack in Brighton in 1984: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always.”
Success in counter-terrorism is not just about preventing attacks; it is also about dealing with them. The measured response to the Boston bombing, both in the White House and in Massachusetts, shows how far our society has come since the trauma of 9/11. There was no rush to judgment, nor to blame. When we get to know who was responsible, we will react. Until then we will carry on with our lives as best we can, grieving the dead, taking care of the injured and reassuring one another that terrorism does not work.
President Obama was right to say on Tuesday that it is important to understand “why” as well as to know “who.” This doesn’t mean we would then change whatever policy the bombers were protesting, but rather that we will learn that the issues they’re protesting are already the subject of national debate or are so marginal as to be whacky.
By knowing the “why,” we can generally be comforted by the knowledge that those who indulge in political violence are on the fringe of the fringe.
The wrong response to terrorism is to stoke fear and worry that we are now facing a new wave of terrorism by people of whom the authorities were completely unaware. Most terrorists aim to create fear, not to kill people for the sake of killing, and we should not do their job for them.
Had the mayor of London cancelled the race on Sunday, he would have handed the terrorists a victory even beyond the massive publicity that they scored in Boston. It is not just a matter of the famous British resolve to “keep calm and carry on,” but it is a matter of keeping the reaction in proportion to the threat. This is sometimes difficult in the short term, but it is always right in the long term.
Barrett is a director of the Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He formerly headed the UN’s Al Qaeda-Taliban Monitoring Team, and before that headed counter-terrorism at MI6.