This was inevitable. The gruesome series of explosions ripping through London's subways and bus systems Thursday, July 7, was a reminder, if any were needed, that the terrorists President Bush has declared war against have the capacity to strike on our soil whenever it suits them. It's not easy for them to do, but it will happen; and when it does, it will have significance.
The two presumed Al Qaeda strikes on Western soil since 9/11 have both happened at the timing and convenience of the terrorists. First, Spain, whose government had been a fervent supporter of Bush's invasion of Iraq, was hit just days before a critical national election. The conservative government's dissembling reaction to the Madrid bombing cost it the election. Now Britain, Bush's staunchest ally, is hit as it hosts the G-8 summit.
This tells us two things. First, the next Al Qaeda attack on American soil is not likely to happen in Peoria's water tower. A lot of the heartland paranoia over possible terrorist attacks is simply misplaced. Al Qaeda is savvy enough to launch attacks for maximum strategic and symbolic value, and it won't waste its time in a place nobody's ever heard of at a time with no particular significance.
Second, we know that Al Qaeda can launch such an attack no matter how well prepared our defenses are. There are simply too many opportunities to kill civilians in an open society. Britain had all of its police and intelligence forces on high alert as the world's G-8 leaders converged on Scotland.
For what it's worth, those forces probably wasted a lot of energy tracking the organizers of the huge number of largely peaceful demonstrators who descended on Edinburgh. This, too, was a reminder: There's an enormous difference between the legal, or even mildly illegal, demonstrators that swarm such summits and the terrorists whose purpose is to kill civilians. Police forces tend to spend far too much time conflating the two.
The purported Al Qaeda group that took responsibility for the London bombings on the Internet pointedly portrayed it as a military operation. It's far too easy, and appropriate, to condemn civilian killings—but the sad truth is everyone's doing it. The vast majority of deaths on both sides of the Iraq war are civilian. The more than 100,000 civilian deaths so far in Iraq have come largely at the hands of Americans, and it's all too easy for an Islamic fundamentalist to rationalize that, so long as Americans show so little regard for the lives of Muslims, they are justified in returning the favor. This sort of cycle of rationalized violence is exactly why the War on Terror is likely to last indefinitely.
The question should be how to interrupt that cycle by stopping the terror attacks and stopping the military operations that presumably help inspire them. In the current situation, it's clear that the war in Iraq is what's providing the recruits and the ideological fire for Al Qaeda's operations and any public support it enjoys among Muslims. Exactly the sort of sustained economic and political support the G-8 is attempting to show Africa is the sort of evidence Muslim countries would require of the West's good will. To end terrorism, public support for it must be eroded. The West, and particularly the U.S., must do far more not only to promote democracy but to relieve the sort of devastating poverty that plagues much of the Muslim world.
A military approach alone will never end the War on Terror, and it will never prevent the sort of attack London suffered. So long as the British and American governments insist on such a limited approach, they will continue to be at risk.