"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.
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.
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..."
Now is when citizens and their leaders need to remind themselves that terrorism is not inevitable, that it can be defeated. And, in fact, it has been overcome before - for instance, in Europe, the Red Brigades have lost their grip, the Baader Meinhof Gang are relics of the past, and the Irish Republican Army appears finally to be disarming itself.
People can be encouraged by the speed and thoroughness of the British investigation into the recent transit attacks, as well as by new stirrings in the Muslim community to denounce violence more forcefully, as in last week's fatwa (religious ruling) by groups of North American Muslim scholars calling on Muslims not to offer any support to terrorists.
What people need to be told is the reasonable risk of attack and to know what their leaders are doing to mitigate that risk. They also must learn what they themselves can do to minimize that risk.
"We must fight the urge to clamp down in fear and bring our society to a standstill," Mr. Chertoff added in his recent speech. "Our antiterrorism efforts must be based on assessments of risk, not reaction to attacks. In the face of terror, there will always be a temptation to panic, to react, but we must be steady, unwavering - dedicated to the task at hand."
What the public doesn't need are vague, meaningless phrases that do nothing but encourage more fear. Terrorism is a topic for open debate and regular reconsideration by the public. The terrorists' tactics are constantly changing, and so the public must be encouraged to be flexibly responsive, and not just numbed, to any new kinds of threats.
Defending a society against terrorist acts requires the work of all levels of government, backed by a fearless and informed citizenry. It is a fight for liberty, that is, a campaign to be liberated from the very fear that terrorists try to instill.
For nearly half a century, the Western world fearlessly stood against the Soviet Union and communism - and watched that "evil empire" crumble in 1991 into its own emptiness. Now both the West and most Muslims are standing up against an ideology that thrives only if others join in its fear-mongering.
Why do Al Qaeda's bidding?