When Fear Stalks, Tune Out

By JOHN TIERNEY

New York Times

July 9, 2005

Tony Blair was as eloquent as ever when he faced the press at the G-8 summit meeting yesterday, but what was most impressive was what he didn't say. After uttering three sentences of gratitude to the other leaders for their support after the London attacks, he dropped the subject of terror.

Instead of giving murderers publicity on worldwide television, he talked about poverty in Africa and global warming. When a reporter tried to distract him by asking what "went wrong" in London, he said it was the terrorists' fault and went right back to the business of the G-8.

The prime minister was a blessed relief after the talking heads in America the past two days. As politicians vowed to win the war on terror and get more money for their districts in the process, security officials sent SWAT teams to protect commuters and divined that the terrorist threat was now orange instead of yellow (whatever that means).

Television and print editors rushed to assign what is known in the business as the "Fear Stalks" story, as in, "We need a 'Fear Stalks Suburban Bus Riders.' " The commuters' alarm was shared by local experts. South Dakota's homeland security officials were reported to be "monitoring the situation closely."

I don't mean to minimize the bloodshed in London. I lived in New York in 2001 and later in Baghdad during months of car bombings. But I got the most useful lessons about terrorism when I moved to suburban Maryland just in time for the snipers to begin their famous spree near my home in 2002.

I could have written a "Fear Stalks" story about myself as I walked home from the subway the evening after the spree began. I was more tense than I had ever been in New York or Baghdad.

The assurances that the police were on the case meant nothing because there was obviously no way to stop one guy with a rifle from shooting me that evening.

That's the same situation we're in after the London attacks: it's clear that no one can stop terrorists from killing. Spending billions on airport security has simply diverted them to transit systems, and spending billions on transit systems could at best divert them somewhere else: stores, restaurants, sidewalks. Terrorists don't even need bombs. They could simply adopt the snipers' technique for spreading fear.

President Bush briefly admitted last summer to Matt Lauer that the war on terror couldn't ever be won, but he got so much criticism that he promptly backtracked. It was a textbook Washington gaffe: perfectly true but terribly inconvenient.

It was inconvenient because politicians like to promise a cure for any problem in the news, especially if the cure means dispensing money to constituents and campaign contributors.

Promises to halt terror have turned homeland security spending into the biggest porkfest in Washington, and the London attacks have inspired calls for still more spending.

Washington obviously has a role in hunting terrorists and protecting the borders, but it can't stop small-scale attacks like the ones in London, no matter how much money it gives to each Congressional district.

If subway riders like me in Washington and New York want to pay for better security in the hope that terrorists will attack someone else instead, we should pay for it ourselves.

But I think that we'd be better off reconsidering our definition of victory in the war on terror. Calling it a war makes it sound like a national fight against a mighty enemy threatening our society.

But right now the terrorists look more like a small group of loosely organized killers who are less like an army than like lightning bolts - scary but rarely fatal. Except that the risk of being struck by lightning is much higher than the risk of being killed by a terrorist.

It may seem coldblooded to think in probabilities after a tragedy, but contemplating those odds made my walks home a lot easier during the snipers' spree. The other strategy that helped was turning off the television whenever the police and the politicians held press conferences detailing everything they were doing to protect the public.

Occasionally one of those officials urged people to keep their perspective and go on with life, but there was no one quite like Tony Blair. Instead of promising security at home, he discussed problems overseas that he could do something about. Instead of talking about the need for Britons to move on, he moved on.

E-mail: tierney@nytimes.com