11 July 2005

How effective are terrorist bombings?


It seems clear that the London bombings, no matter how devastating for those directly affected, will have little effect on the city as a whole. Londoners are not shunning the mass transit systems, and while they will likely be more wary for a while, in the end they will move on, just as they have done since the IRA bombings. It's a testament to the resilience of the British people, and to their confidence in their society and government.

Similarly, tourism in Bali is booming again. And all of the bombs in Israel have not driven it into the sea, or out of the Occupied Territories.

Reagan did pull the Marines out of Lebanon following a devastating bomb attack.

But in general, terrorist bombings seem to work so poorly at directly achieving their stated goals that they must serve another purpose, that of keeping hope alive within the terrorist group itself, letting them see that it is possible to strike against the perceived enemy.

A group, or a state, that engages in terrorism does so out of an inability to attack openly. Such an inability can result from a lack of real power, as in the case of those who bombed London. Or it can result from knowing that desired actions would garner widespread opprobrium, as in the case of the death squads in El Salvador. Either way, their actions are, and are seen to be, illegitimate.

Therein lies our hope. It means that these religious fundamentalists, these totalitarians, know that their actions are seen as illegitimate by the public, and that they are not powerful enough not to care what the public thinks.

It's when the attacks come openly, as in the Soviet Union against its dissidents, or Nazi Germany against those on the fringes of their society, that we really have to worry. Yes, we must protect as best we can against those who would detonate bombs on buses. And legitimate grievances do need to be addressed. But we should be just as careful to guard against giving power to, or legitimizing, those who act from ideologies that have no test in reality.