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Don't Do Al Qaeda's Work for It

Public claims of inevitable attacks create mainly fear

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"It's not a matter of if, but when." This fatalistic phrase, used to describe an unquestioned inevitability to another Al Qaeda-related attack, is being parroted around the world as if it were rock-solid truth.

Vice President Dick Cheney used it back in May 2002, when US intelligence officials pointed to the potential for new attacks in the US. Police in London said it after - and before - the July 7 transit bombs. "The clock is ticking," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a speech last week. Now police chiefs in Seattle and Los Angeles are mouthing similar lines. And during last year's campaigns, many politicians resorted to this kind of be-very-afraid rhetoric.

Spreading mood of fatalism

So it's not surprising that the public at large is repeating it. One wire reporter, scoping out the public mood in Rome the day after the London bombing, described an atmosphere of fatalism. "The thing is, it's not a matter of if, but when and where, there will be an attack on Italy," Nicolo, a Milanese lawyer on a business trip to Rome, told the journalist.

Any number of reasons can lead people to voice resignation to the killing of innocent people. At its most crass, such claims to certainty make good political cover if an attack does occur. At their most benign, these dire predictions speak to a fear that law enforcement, the military, and elected leaders cannot completely protect open societies from terrorists.

But repeating the "not if, but when" mantra can also simply empower terrorists. It spreads the very fear they want, and risks creating a defeatist atmosphere and an erosion of diligence in defending a nation.

Churchill's warning

Winston Churchill, in his "never give in" speech of Oct. 29, 1941, warned against this kind of thinking in matters "great or small."

With the victory in the ferocious Battle of Britain behind him, yet the US still not in the war to help him, Churchill rightly reminded citizens that "you cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are..."

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