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Hoyt Hilsman Headshot

'Keep Calm and Carry On?' Not Quite

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On my honeymoon in London years ago, an IRA bombing in Regents Park -- across the street from where I was staying -- killed eight soldiers and several horses. A couple of weeks later, my wife and I visited a deli in the Jewish section of Paris. The next day, terrorist gunmen sprayed the place with machine gun fire and tossed in several grenades, killing six people, including two American tourists.

My first reaction -- after the initial shock -- was to suspect that I was jinxed. Everywhere I went in Europe, it seemed, there was another terrorist attack. As I walked the streets of European cities, I imagined bombs exploding or machine guns spraying. But after I got over my initial reaction, I was impressed by the calmness of the European public in the face of this horrendous attacks.

The day after the Regents Park bombing, for example, I went jogging in the park, right past the scene of the bombing. While the bandstand was roped off and the police were politely questioning passersby about whether they had seen anything suspicious the day before, Londoners had assumed their traditional attitude of "Keep calm and carry on." In Paris, the reaction had been similar -- the vicious terrorist attacks had barely disrupted daily life.

After decades of terrorist campaigns, Europeans had come to view the attacks as largely inevitable. Certainly, they expected the government and the police to do everything they could to prevent the attacks -- including conducting an aggressive campaign against the IRA and other organizations that were using terror tactics. But the public had also accepted the fact that some attacks would be successful, and that tragedy was unavoidable.

While none of these attacks prepared anyone for the scale of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it is clear that terror attacks in some form on the United States were also inevitable and that little had been done to prepare for them. At the same time, the tremendous overreaction to the 9/11 attacks -- driven by a panicked American public and officialdom -- led to monumental mistakes, from the growth of a gargantuan and wasteful homeland security apparatus to a tragic war in Iraq, not to mention a climate of unwarranted paranoia.

"Keep calm and carry on," is hardly an American concept. Perhaps "Shoot first and ask questions later" or "Run for your lives," are closer to the truth. But this attitude flies in the face of a reality that terrorism has been and will always be part of our world. In the late nineteenth century, for example, American cities were rocked by terrorist bombings on a much wider scale than today, two presidents were assassinated and many ordinary citizens were killed.

Fear simply cannot be the basis of public policy when it comes to terrorism -- whether it is on the part of average citizens or public officials. But fear continues to be the operating mode. In the current debate over NSA data collection, for example, both sides of the controversy are basing their arguments on fear. Defenders of the NSA spying argue that we must be hyper-vigilant in the face of terrorism and that the data collection program is a vital tool. Opponents of the spying argue that the program is a step in the direction of totalitarianism. Both arguments come from a position of fear.

The so-called Cheney doctrine set forth a "zero tolerance" of terrorist attacks and argued that virtually any means justify the ends of preventing terrorism. That sounds good, but it is clearable unworkable since it is impossible to stop all terrorist attacks. Serious terrorist attacks are inevitable and to some extent unstoppable -- even attacks on a bigger scale than 9/11. While we ought to do what we can -- within the limits of law and practicality -- to stop them, they are going to happen. The larger question is how we respond to those attacks when they occur. I would suggest that the "Keep calm and carry on" mantra is a good starting point in formulating national responses.

On the other side of the NSA debate, the theory that the NSA spying is a step towards totalitarianism is equally specious. Totalitarianism results from a dramatic shift in social and political conditions, not from the actions of espionage agencies. It is the political leadership that guides the spies, not the other way around. And the political leadership under Obama has taken a step back from the more intrusive elements of the NSA program, aiming toward a more balanced approach of spying and preventing terrorist attacks.

One suspects that, despite attempts at formulating a coherent policy towards terrorism, fear still reigns supreme, especially in the minds of public officials. Senator Diane Feinstein, in defending the NSA spying, argues that the same public that is criticizing her defense of the NSA would be blaming her and the intelligence agencies for inaction when another attack occurs. This comment is a reflection of the fear-based, yo-yo policy making when it comes to terrorism.

The sooner we accept the fact that terrorist attacks will occur -- and may be even more serious than 9/11 -- the better able we will be as a nation to address the challenges of terrorism. Politicians and government officials ought not to be stoking fears either of terrorist attacks or government spying. Nor should they be promising either absolute immunity from attack or absolute privacy from government intrusion. Instead, they should offer a hard-eyed assessment of the realities of the terrorist threat and work toward practicable, reality-based (rather than fear-based) policies to meet that threat.