The bomber will always get through

Even before all the horror of World War Two, the pessimists used to say “the bomber will always get through”. How right they were, as millions of residents of London, Rotterdam, Warsaw, Dresden, Berlin and thousands of others cities and towns have learned over the subsequent six years. This wasn’t a fatalistic call to resigns oneself and surrender to what’s coming, but a realistic assessment of the limits of self-defence.

Today too, the bomber will always get through. And the shooter. And the knifer. And the truck driver. No matter how effective the security, it is never perfect, not even in totalitarian societies, much less in open liberal democracies. The security has to get it right one hundred per cent of the time; the terrorists only need to get lucky one per cent of the time. We should be very thankful to police and intelligence agencies for all their hard work that prevents more atrocities from taking place, but we should never expect that our thin blue line will be able to stop them all.

This is even truer in the age of the so called “lone wolf”.

In reality, a lone wolf is a misleading label. Hardly any terrorists actually plot and act alone and without anyone else knowing and aiding them. For example, several people are now under arrest in conjunction with the Nice truck attack. On the other hand, many if not most attackers are not members of a terrorist group in any meaningful way; they are not trained by one, they don’t receive material support from one – they are merely inspired by one. This isn’t even a franchising model of terrorism; this is a memeographic one, where a group like ISIS provides the ideology and the iconography to every committed radical but also to every malcontent, misfit and the disturbed who desperately wants to give some meaning to their life – and to their death.

The problem is there is an almost infinite potential supply of malcontents, misfits and the disturb who can be attracted to Islamist jihadism. They might suck in a few other people into their conspiracy, but in many cases won’t have any suspicious contacts and interactions that would put them on the authorities’ radar and set off alarm bells. You can’t watch everyone, particularly as your resources are stretched monitoring just the more obvious potential threats.

Combine that with the ubiquity of ways to kill. European gun laws make American gun-control activists weep with envy, yet those who really want to get their hands on firearms will do so, be it the Paris attackers or the Munich shooter (he was not a terrorist but well illustrates the principle that where there is a will there is a way). Those who can’t or won’t get guns can easily put together home-made bombs from common ingredients, using recipes widely available on the internet. And those too lazy to do that will simply use a knife or an axe – or a vehicle. There is no way to disarm the population armed with household objects.

The “bomber will always get through” phrase originally comes from a 1932 parliamentary speech by the former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. It bears to provide the fuller quote:

I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through, The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.

Baldwin was of course correct, even if he wished he wouldn’t. Today we are also at war, but it’s a strange sort of a war, unlike World War Two that Baldwin predicted. There is a more or less convention struggle taking place on the ground in Syria and Iraq, but for most part it neither interests nor directly impacts all of us in Baltimore, Birmingham or Brisbane. The bomber will always get through, because the bomber is already here. For all the fears about Nazi and Japanese spies and saboteurs, the United States, Great Britain and Australia did not experience a violent fifth column on the world war home front. What we are seeing today in the West is more of a low-level, slow-burning urban partisan war, except it’s not conducted by the occupied against the occupiers. In some ways it’s even worse, because unlike world war guerrillas, the terrorists want to die.

This is why in the short to medium term I’m pessimistic about the likelihood of “winning” the war on domestic terror. It is likely to be a long and bloody one (though nowhere near as bloody as a world war, unless the terrorists eventually manage to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction). It will have to be fought by police and security forces at home, and by armed forces abroad, and it will also have to be fought as a battle of ideas, and a civil war for hearts and minds within Islam. Stay strong.