Page last updated at 17:03 GMT, Monday, 11 January 2010

Is the US media helping the terrorists' cause?

As the USA steps up security measures after the recent mid-air terrorist attempt, Mark Mardell compares the differing reactions to terrorism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Passengers in US airport
Security in US airports has increased dramatically since the bomb attempt

Living in America, it is easy to forget that the plot to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day actually failed.

No one was killed and - apart from the plotter himself and the man who tackled him - no one was hurt.

Yet the country seems to be reeling.

Pundit after pundit frets that the threat is not being taken seriously enough, that the world - changed after 9/11 for ever - has just changed again and that America is insufficiently aware of just how serious this is.

The administration and the security services remain in a state of heightened alert.

The cancellation and delay rate at airports is up 100% since the incident. Some of that may be down to the weather but each day sees a slew of new security alarms.

Military fighter jets escorted an airliner back to a Midwest airport when a passenger would not put away his hand luggage.

Newark airport was closed when a man nipped under a security barrier to kiss his girlfriend and several flights have been cancelled after sniffer dogs started barking.

The culprit in one case - a jar of honey! It is a sticky business getting it right.

Obama 'too calm'

So perhaps the plot did not fail after all.

There is a general assumption in America that al-Qaeda simply wants to kill as many Americans as possible, that murder is their objective.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder

It is of course one of their goals but not for nothing are they, by many, still called terrorists.

They are, after all, trying to effect political change by using violence to create a state of fear by terrorising people and, in a democracy, that can send politicians into a blind funk.

Terrorists want to create terror. It is in the job description!

President Obama's opponents have long accused him of being soft on terrorism. He does not even use the George Bush phrase "war on terror".

So the hostile columnists pounced after the Christmas Day plot.

It took the president four days to speak from his Hawaii holiday home and, when he did, he sounded low key and calm.

They wanted anger and dismay.

Of course it is one of Obama's trade marks that he is cool and analytical but the commentators want, not a problem solver, but an emoter-in-chief.

They have a political objective but their complaint boils down to the fact he did not appear frightened enough. He was not terrified.

Subsequently he has appeared angrier, sterner - if mainly with his own intelligence services.

This mood of high seriousness has robbed the West of a really effective propaganda weapon. It has made it difficult to exploit the sheer ridiculousness of an underpants bomber.

If the thought of the state of al-Qaeda's undergarments made people snigger instead of quake, that would be a moral victory.

British attitude

And I think the whole thing would play rather differently at home in the UK.

I do not much buy the British stiff upper lip: that we are unsettled by nothing, except of course the weather!

Obama has declared that a proud nation does not hunker down and adopt a siege mentality in the face of such threats

But there are historical and political reasons why we seem less phased by the threat of terrorism. Of course part of it goes back to 9/11. We have not suffered an attack like that.

For Americans, the events of that day created a profound and utterly new sense of vulnerability.

I grew up with stories of my mum coming home as a schoolgirl and finding a hole down the street where a house used to be, obliterated by German bombs; of going into school and hearing a friend had been killed in a raid.

And most of my adult life has been against the background of IRA terrorism, a persistent drum beat of death.

I was one of the first on the scene when they blew up Harrods. I know the cost in human terms.

But it means we see terrorism as a background threat. It might have your name on it but it is statistically improbable.

A bit like road accidents: acknowledging that people will be killed in car accidents is not an argument against seat belts and air bags. It is just a recognition that - despite all the sensible precautions - it will happen, perhaps to you and yours.

'Terrified' US

The danger is that al-Qaeda did succeed on Christmas Day with the help of their unwitting foot soldiers in the American mass media.

People here have been terrorised and, just as President Johnson had to be tough in Vietnam - not because he thought it was sensible but because, as a Democrat, he could not be seen to be soft - Obama has adopted some of the rhetoric of war.

But in his last statement he seemed alert to this.

He has declared that a proud nation does not hunker down and adopt a siege mentality in the face of such threats.

In a rebuke to his critics, he warned that Americans should define what it means to be American. A bunch of fanatics should not be allowed to define his nation.

It is all a bit coded but he is saying that it is his critics and those who thought Bush got it right who are really soft on terrorism, giving al-Qaeda what they desire: a terrified United States that dances to their tune.

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