Editorial: What Makes Terrorists Tick?
I have long known that motivated individuals believe that
their own actions, even with few resources, can make a disproportionate result
in forcing the public to heed their causes. Shortly after I started my adult working
life (in 1972), I encountered a left-wing minor party, the People’s Party of
In 1982, on the very first computer that I ever owned (a
Radio Shack TRS-80, complete with 64-character black-and-white monitor) I wrote my
second ever “unpublished great American novel”—and I still have its dot-matrix
hardcopy printout. I proposed that KGB-sponsored terrorist commandoes would
seed themselves into our large cities and simultaneously create dirty bomb
explosions and contaminate large urban areas with plutonium dust. In one
climactic scene sequence, gay men in a bathhouse had to be evacuated, literally
out of the orgy room in their skivvies, out onto the streets and herded out of
the city into a suddenly regimental and rural communal existence, ruled by a
county judge. (This was about a year before it became clear where AIDS—then
called GRID—would lead.) But it made perfect sense to me that Communists could
try to destroy our society this way, without warning. The cornball movie Red Dawn (1984) presented a sudden
“proletariat” communist invasion from Central American through
In the 1990s, with terrorists like the Unabomber and Timothy
McVeigh, we developed the image of the lone psycho (who might work in a small
group) with extremist ideology, ranging from Ludditism
to extreme anti-government activism or even Neo Fascism. We did have the 1993
Of course, we now know. Perhaps a writer like Tom Clancy can say, “I told you so!” The biggest threat seems to be radical Islam, which bears no more theological justification to a basis in the Koran than does Aryan Nation in the Christian Bible, but the scale of radical militant Islam has shocked most Americans. At this point, I cannot say with certainty that some of the other threats that I mentioned above couldn’t resurface quickly (so it is a good thing that Saddam is gone). But clearly, radical Islam (Al Qaeda and other allied groups) wants to bring down western civilization and it is shocking how close it could come with its resources. The danger is not just rogue states, it is rogue stateless small groups and even individuals; although they may have depended upon rogue states to given them sanctuary, their past inheritance of statecraft seems less important now. The radical Islamic terrorist comes from a paradoxical ilk: decentralized and nimble, but unbelievably well organized worldwide while stateless.
The danger, quite bluntly, is that a very small number of
individuals could, if they got their hands on certain weapons and are willing
(even eager) to commit suicide, bring about the end of stable liberal democracy
and “open society,” at least if they could not be stopped from repetition.
Destructive acts (whether or not they involve airline hijackintg)
could target major symbols of financial power or government, attempt
decapitation of government, cause enormous civilian casualties, or cause such
economic property losses as to destabilized the financial system—an observation
that questions the hyperindividualism of our era and
recalls “family values” as necessary for hard times. Palletized cargo is especially worrisome as a
source of smuggled
The recent book Imperial Hubris, by the anonymous
But what about well-educated young men who become suicide hijackers? Is it just “religion”? Does this whole new war come down to religion? Partly. Remember the movie Straw Dogs? But it also seems to be about ego, the desire to give one’s life a permanent meaning that transcends one’s temporal existence. Indeed, the extreme nature of these asymmetric attacks suggests a rationalization right out of horror movies: “Because I can.” But there is something more fundamental. Personally, for me, choosing my own goals and executing them has a high priority; I would loathe myself if the best I could do was to hucksterize or peddle the interests of others in order to be paid off or even kept alive. I value the right to speak for myself publicly, even at the cost of loyalty to those who have supported me through my own shortcomings. But I live in civilization; I have the luxury of simply walking away and saying “No!” to interests with which I want no personal public connection, and living up to the libertarian idea of “do no harm.” Men who become terrorists do not come from free cultures, and they do not have the luxury of walking away from cultural influences that offend them. These men feel that they will soon be forced to compete by other people’s rules (this suggests an analogy—how I felt at age 8 when expected to play football), and that the religious paradigm (however strange to some of us) undercoating their lives is being pilloried. To protect the personality, then, one strikes back. The religious police are not enough. One needs to partake in the fight to obtain meaning. There is, however, a curious paradox. Radical Islam seems to seek meritocracy, even if the order of merit is dictated by Allah. There is, to the radical, a certain beauty and finality in that order if Allah cannot be questioned. Libertarian freedom also seeks to recognize merit, too; it is different in that it allows the individual to choose his own way, but once the individual fails he must accept the implications of failure and lack of merit. This kind of thinking, carried far enough, can eventually lead to an elistist, privileged society that seems like another kind of tyranny. In both cases (religious meritocracy and the meritocracy of hyperindividualism) there is a loss of empathy for “people as people” and for family as a socializing and freeing, even liberal institution. I wanted to explain this parallel, and I think it is important.
In fact, people like me have had the luxury of living their lives according to their own goals, in a kind of virtual, global spaces heavily dependent, however, upon infrastructure, technology, financial and political stability. We call it “liberal democracy,” or “democratic capitalism” and for me it means freedom without mandatory “socialization.” But throughout history most people have lived only for purposes chosen by others—closely tied to family, faith, and land. There is a certain arrogance to my lifestyle, and a disturbing vulnerability. The September 2004 issue of National Geographic contains a most sobering report on global warming, and we fear that we are reaching an inflection point on the development of new oil supplies anyway, while current oil supplies remain vulnerable to a wide variety of disruptions (terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, cutoffs by Iran, problems in Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria). Freedom of mobility has long been one of our most important, even though it has facilitated urban sprawl, the two income trap, and a continued pattern of segregation. Can the free market build a new infrastructure based on more renewable resources, or will we fall back into patterns of regulation or even rationing? The financial system so far has recovered from various scandals, but faces more with pensions and eventually social security, as well as real estate, which could have some shocking weak points in an era of terrorism. Affluent young people grow up without a hint of a sense of the social obligations of the past, and, in an era of falling birthrates and a coming eldercare crisis, a large number of adults live out their lives with no concept of how to relate to children (me included). HIV has become manageable within the male homosexual population but not in the Third World, and novel new diseases, spurned by lifestyle and technology changes, seem to come off of science fiction pages into reality. Freedom of expression for everyone, and the freedom to publish by those of average means is provided by Internet technology, which then becomes subject to vulnerabilities and abuse by those attempting to get something for nothing (spammers) or ( as with virus writers) just to prove what they can do. Profits do provide the capital to develop new wealth, but many people take capitalism to the extreme, living in a “winner take all” world conducive to cheating (as David Callahan describes in his The Cheating Culture) and also a culture that dumps less competitive individuals out in the cold to fend for themselves and often to die. Good, productive jobs go overseas and it seems like we are left with peddling to each other, although the best new jobs require people skills and the ability to come out of one’s own space in relating to others. None of this is lost on our enemies. We do seem particularly vulnerable to collapse if hit hard enough by those determined to leverage asymmetry.
Osama bin Laden remains at large, to the best of our
knowledge, and his “accomplishment” over twenty years and his ability to evade
capture, is incredible singularity of purpose and seeming invincibility, all
seem quite incredible. The fact that two icons of global capitalism (compared
by some commentators to intrusive phallic symbols) could disappear in 102
Update: May 2005—what are the biggest threats?
So, could terrorists of any radical ideology bring our civilization to its knees and end life as we know it?
There are a few possibilities that seem sobering. The most
serious threats generally have to do with radioactive materials. A large dirty
bomb (radiological dispersion device) with certain payloads could render many
blocks of a large city unusable for decades. Obviously, so would a small
nuclear weapon. It now appears that a “homemade” device based on smuggled
highly enriched uranium (HEU) may be a more probable threat than a smuggled
stolen “suitcase nuke,” which very likely would not be detonatable.
It is conceivable that several of these devices could be simultaneously in
several cities. (Sorry, no links here on how to make them, although it seems
that the basic science is available in all public libraries.) Another grisly
threat is an E-bomb (
Chemical and biological weapons are probably very difficult
to use to produce mass casualties. A petrochemical plant could be attacked with
mass casualties (or possibly a nuclear power plant), or a train carrying
hazardous chemicals could be derailed in a populated area. Most biological
weapons are very difficult to disperse effectively. The
Most specific intelligence reports so far have pointed to the use of large truck bombs with conventional explosives, as with the threat against five financial institutions in August 2004. Generally, Islamic terrorists seem more interested in spectacular attacks against symbolic targets than in attacks that would undermine the economic system and, particularly, urban residential real estate.
When I worked on my first DADT book in the mid 1990s, I
sometimes mentioned terrorism (
So what makes these guys (and sometimes women) tick? Two things. One is a reaction to a sense of shame caused by what they perceive as the aggressive impositions of others. The other is more basic: the self-importance that goes with exaggerated religious or “moral” self-righteousness. Until 9/11, I never personally took seriously that we could lose it all because of religion – even given the religion-based homophobia that I have encountered all my life.
©Copyright 2004 by
Book review for Peter Bergen’s “Holy War, Inc.” about Osama bin Laden