July 2, 2007

July 2, 2007 | Commentary on Europe

Lousy London Lessons

News that British police uncovered a car stuffed with explosives, seemingly ready to bring a bit of Baghdad to London, will likely prompt another round of really dumb ideas about how to make America safer.

Citizens should inoculate themselves against stupidity before pundits and politicians try to scare them to death, raise their taxes and trim some "inconvenient" freedoms from the Constitution.

First off, some will want to buy zillions of cameras so that the government can watch everything all the time.

London is ringed with a government video-surveillance system. The cameras will likely provide information about who parked the car bomb, just as they captured on tape the London subway bombers. That's great - but it doesn't mean filming every city street in America is a good idea.

Most important, the ability to film the event live doesn't prevent or deter the attack itself.

And there are lots of ways to investigate after an incident other than having moving pictures. Terrorists used a truck bomb in the 1995 attack on the Murrah Office building - and the police found out who rented and drove the truck without a video tape, by uncovering the Vehicle ID number from the wreckage.

And these systems can be overwhelming: The more cameras there are and the more images they collect, the more likely it is that no one will pay attention to the information-overload they produce.

At the end of the day, being watched everywhere (a "surveillance society") won't make us much safer - but it will cost a lot of money and make us feel a lot less free. Technology is not a silver bullet to stopping terrorism.

Second, someone will insist that we should ban, restrict, control or eliminate something to make us safe from car bombs.

It won't work. Car bombs are among the most popular terrorist weapons because they're "easy": Almost anyone can get what's needed to make a really deadly bomb; a quick Internet search can explain how to build it, and any driver can deliver one. If the attacker's not particular about who he kills, any busy street makes a good target.

We already know it can happen here, because it has. Until 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing was the most deadly terrorist attack in modern U.S. history. In fact, there are bombings of one sort or another in the United States every year. There is no way to fool-proof America against terrorists truly determined to kill innocents.

Third, some will argue it is all our fault. That the killers, whoever they are, wouldn't be trying to kill us if we would just stop doing things to make them mad.

It is not clear who "they" were in the London case, but we know there aren't that many. Terrorists are a fraction of any race, gender, religion, state or group one could possibly imagine - except other terrorists. The notion that we should let the tyranny of a few dictate how the many live their lives is abhorrent.

Likewise, showing cowardice, fear or regret for being free peoples trying to make the world a better place will only embolden, not disarm, terrorists. Neither giving in to terrorists or persecuting anyone who has the same religion, ethnicity or citizenship as a terrorist will make us safer.

The right way to stop terrorist acts is simple: Stop them before they start.

The United States has broken up at least 16 terrorist conspiracies before they got to the stage of the attempted London car bomb. In every case, police and other agencies did it the old-fashioned way - through good counterterrorism investigations involving undercover operations, turning informants, trailing suspects, reading their mail, listening to their phone calls. Legal powers (like those provided in the Patriot Act) that help make investigations more effective and have authorities better share information really work.

James Jay Carafano is senior research fellow for national security and homeland security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in the New York Post