Fomenting Hysteria

Scotland Yard should rein in Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson.

Last week, discussing the foiled attack on passenger air transportation, Stephenson stood before cameras, flash-bulbs popping, and read the following from a prepared statement:

We cannot stress too highly the severity that this plot represented. Put simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.

Stephenson quite badly over-stressed the severity of the plot. It is easy to comprehend in terms of both execution and anticipated result. The planned attack would have killed many people in a very dramatic way - everyone should be glad that it was defeated - but it wasn’t anything near “unimaginable.”

Is this a quibble about semantics? No. Stephenson’s overwrought statement is a form of incompetence.

As I wrote last week (citing national security expert John Mueller), it is the reaction to terrorist attacks that inflict the most damage. Controlling the reaction through even-handed public communications is the best thing officialdom can do when an attack has succeeded - to say nothing of the opportunity for confidence-building when an attack has been thwarted.

The fact that this embarrassing public display was part of a statement written in advance is reason for Scotland Yard to fully review its communications strategy. Stephenson’s overreaction splashed across America’s television screens numerous times over the weekend.

Fortunately,the public doesn’t appear to be falling for it. A poll appearing in this morning’s Washington Post Express found that 72% of people feel safe flying. USA Today reports that air travelers are adapting quickly to measures that foreclose the threat of a liquid bomb attack. Let’s hope that the measures are quickly minimized to reach what attacks are actually possible, rather than those that are only speculative.

My colleague Gene Healy’s post here last week (preceding news of the foiled terror plot) and his citation to James Fallows’ article ” Declaring Victory ” are even more solid and relevant now than they were before. We do not face an existential threat from terrorism. The “War on Terror” is effectively won. All that’s left is for someone to declare it so.