Unlike economic or even geopolitical threats, which are more amenable to resolution based on a rational calculation of costs and benefits, the challenge of terrorism is nothing if not viral. It is a form of low-intensity warfare that might be spread out over a long time, sometimes dormant and other times rampant. Unlike conventional war, whose onset rouses populations to defend their lands now or never, terrorist warfare is insidious. Lone attacks have no territorial scope, no political timetable and no strategic horizon. Its psychological impact lies in the way it eats away slowly at the belief that citizens and states ultimately can protect each other.
Traditional warfare is an exception to the norm of peace. Terrorism subverts that logic by making fear the norm. Every attack which succeeds in ordinary places makes terrorism appear as an unavoidable fact of life. Periodic bloodshed without known ends can brood despondency and fatalism. Those are exactly the responses which terrorists seek; it is the prize which their victims should deny them.
Singaporeans wondering when, and not if, a terrorist strike will occur here have to take heart from the way in which other societies have survived attacks. The initial response could be one of disbelief rising quickly to anger, particularly if the perpetrator of the attack happens to be a fellow citizen. The temptation then would be to hit out against the community from which he or she is from. That reaction would feed into terrorists' plans to divide societies that are habitually at peace. No matter how high the number of casualties produced by a bomb explosion in a shopping mall or a train station, the social consequences of ruptured trust and destroyed harmony can only be greater. Singaporeans must not hand this greater defeat of their way of life to terrorists, especially if the criminals turn out to be local-born.
Instead, the best response to terrorism would be to re-affirm the everyday virtue of normalcy. Even in the midst of the collective grieving that can lead dangerously to recriminations directed at a particular community, Singaporeans must not relinquish their protective heritage, derived from shared times that have produced a culture which is uniquely Singaporean.
In practical terms, political, religious and community leaders must come together to remind a frightened population that terrorism is an exception to the rule, not a new - and certainly not an inevitable - rule. No terrorist attack can destroy Singapore's borders, such being the strength of the nation's security forces. The danger is that a terrorist attack could subvert the trust that exists within those borders. In this struggle, every citizen is an army. By standing united in the face of terror, Singaporeans can show that their diversity is no weakness that others might exploit.