Terrorism’s new structure
History is accelerating; and so the future becomes more and more unknowable. Among our foremost thinkers, we find only one presentiment that is universally shared. This turns out to be a sinister variation on the idea of “convergence.” Not the convergence of nations and polities, whereby the world’s autocratic regimes would gradually align themselves with the democratic and contentedly globalized mainstream. This particular expectation, even neoconservatives now concede, was a triumphalist fantasy of the 1990s — that curious holiday from what Philip Roth has called “the remorseless unforeseen.”
The convergence we have now come to anticipate is the convergence of international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction — of IT and WMD. Even strictly parallel lines, I was taught, meet and cross in infinity. And the paths of IT and WMD are visibly inclined, like the sides of a tapering spire. Their convergence is guaranteed by the simplest of market forces. Marginal costs will fall; and demand will climb.
It has not been widely realized, even now, that America has already suffered a terrorist deployment of WMD — as we have just been reminded by the one-man suicide mission of the troubled germ-scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, in Frederick, Md. This attack began on Sept. 18, 2001. The cost in blood was five dead and 17 seriously infected. The cost in treasure was over a billion dollars (the cost to the perpetrator, in a vibrant asymmetry, was estimated at the time to be as little as $2,500). And there was a third impact: the cost in fear. Anthrax is not contagious; but fear is. The scale of the attack was minuscule, yet for a while the terror filled the sky.
Unlike the poet, the novelist (see W.H. Auden’s glittering sonnet of that name) assumes that his or her reactions to the main events (in life, in history) are utterly median, average — predictably and dependably human. I am confident that my reaction to Sept. 11 was quite normative: a leaden and sourly mineral incredulity. It is with rather more diffidence that I divulge my reaction to Sept. 18: I followed the example of that large and flightless African bird which, when sighting a threat to its existence, chooses to bury its head in the sand.
This was the kind of information I was unable to contemplate:
Using one aircraft dispensing 1,000 kg of anthrax spores. Clear calm night. Area covered (sq. km): 300. Deaths assuming 3,000-10,000 people per sq. km: one million to three million.
The affective content of Sept. 18 ran as follows: you cannot protect your children (and I had and have five). Staggering, too, was the perceived magnification of the putative enemy’s power. Al Qaeda swelled like a Saturn; and for a while they seemed to be everywhere on earth — the whisperers, the nightrunners of Osama. Sept. 18 was very cheap, very terrifying, and hideously elusive. It entrained over 9,000 interrogations and 6,000 grand-jury subpoenas; and the case is not yet closed.
The anthrax letters contained two near-identical cover notes. The first said:
THIS IS NEXT
TAKE PENACILIN NOW
DEATH TO AMERICA
DEATH TO ISRAEL
ALLAH IS GREAT
After the subsidence of panic-flurry (the widely reported “sub-clinical hysteria”), no one took the cover note seriously, let alone literally. “Take penacilin now”: this was sound medical advice (anthrax is a bacterium, not a virus), but the misspelling was obviously tactical — a false lead, a false flag. No, we imagined a scowl in a lab coat, a Unabomber, a Timothy McVeigh with a doctorate. And so it proved — or so it seems. (The FBI claims Dr. Ivins was solely responsible for the attack, but his lawyer says he was innocent.)
Sept. 18, then, was “not about religion.” Was Sept. 11 about religion? This is still controversial. Both President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who are religious, were very quick to say that Sept. 11 was “not about religion” (“religion,” hereabouts, being a euphemism for Islam). It then subsequently emerged that Sept. 11 was about religion — or, at least, was not not about religion. But in the last year or two, it seems, we have gone back to saying that Sept. 11, and March 11 Madrid (2004), and July 7 London (2005), and all the rest, are not about religion.
The two most stimulating international terrorism-watchers known to me are John Gray and Philip Bobbitt. Professor Gray (“Straw Dogs,” “Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern” and “Black Mass”) and Professor Bobbitt (“The Shield of Achilles” and the masterly “Terror and Consent”) are utterly unalike, except in brainpower and literary panache. Mr. Bobbitt is a proactive and muscular Atlanticist, whereas Mr. Gray is almost Taoist in his skepticism and his luminous passivity. Mr. Bobbitt is religious, and Mr. Gray is philo-religious (or, rather, wholly reconciled to the inexorability of religious belief); but neither man is an exponent of relativist politesse. And they assert, respectively, that international terrorism is “not about Islam” and has “no close connection to religion.”
Al Qaedaism, for them, is an epiphenomenon — a secondary effect. It is the dark child of globalization. It is the mimic of modernity: devolved, decentralized, privatized, outsourced and networked. According to Mr. Bobbitt, rather more doubtfully, Al Qaeda not only reflects the market state: it is a market state (“a virtual market state”). Globalization created great wealth and also great vulnerability; it created a space, or a dimension. Thus the epiphenomenon is not about religion; it is about human opportunism and the will to power.
Then what, you may be wondering, was all that talk about jihad and infidels and crusaders and madrasas and sharia and the umma and the caliphate? Why did people write whole books with titles like “A Fury for God” and “The Age of Sacred Terror” and “Holy War, Inc.”? There are several reasons for hoping that international terrorism isn’t about religion — not least of them the immense onerousness, the near-impossibility, now, of maintaining a discourse (I’ll put this simply) that makes distinctions between groups of human beings. Al Qaedaism may well evolve into not being about religion, about Islam. But one’s faculties insist that it is not not about religion yet.
Let me devote a paragraph to the British perspective. In the U.K., in 2007, there were 203 arrests on terrorism charges, nearly all of them connected to radical Islam. It is possible to open your newspaper (the Independent) and read about three thwarted or bungled cases of jihadism on a single day (May 24, 2008). The main purpose of the Quilliam Foundation, recently established, is to deradicalize young British Muslims. And consider the otherwise extraordinarily weak motivation of the four men responsible for July 7. Experience of conflict or of foreign occupation? No. A set of demands or the prospect of benefits? No. Community support? No. Familial approval post mortem? On the contrary.
Then, too, the rise of suicide attacks directed at civilians is astonishing — and it is also astonishing how unastonished we claim to be in the face of it. Many commentators like to remind us that this tactic is a) nothing new, and b) nontheological, and then follow that up with a perfunctory reference to the Tamil Tigers, the godless Sri Lankan separatists who have been blowing themselves to pieces since 1987. The relevant essay in “Making Sense of Suicide Missions” (edited by Diego Gambetta and updated in 2006) states, of the Tigers: “There are no clear examples of civilians being directly targeted.” Moreover, one database (quoted in the Times Literary Supplement) concludes that “over 80 per cent of all suicide attacks in history have taken place since 2001.” Suicide bombing is a cult. Mr. Gambetta makes the haunting point that this weapon, unlike any other, is self-replenishing. The bomber uses up one martyr, but he creates many others; and “we know that the number of volunteers soars immediately after Ramadan…”
It may well emerge that the use of religion is, or is becoming, merely a means of mobilization. Religion is for the footsoldiers, not the masterminds. At some later date we may see that religion provided the dialectical staircase to indiscriminate death and destruction. The idea, for instance, that democracy (fundamentally unclean) inculpates every citizen in its nation’s policies; the idea (or ancient heresy) of takfir, whereby the jihadi pre-absolves himself of killing fellow Muslims. Interestingly and encouragingly, Ayman al Zawahiri is currently squirming about in a theological debate with the venerable cleric, Sayyid Imam al Sharif, as Al Qaeda itself is having to defend its religious legitimacy.
We can further expect international terrorism to become much more diffuse in its motivations, reflecting changes in the contemporary self (“a person’s essential being”). Mr. Gray has identified a vein of what he expressively calls “anomic terrorism.” This would be the carnage inspired by alienation, the self-extending despair evident in the random and serial stabbings in the cities of Japan, or the campus massacres in the U.S. — or indeed in the threats voiced by Dr. Ivins during the weeks before his death. The historian Eric Hobsbawm believes that the pandemic collapse of moral inhibition has to do with a general coarsening, the desensitization of violence brought about by the mass media (and of course the Internet). This prompts some further points.
It is Mr. Bobbitt’s thesis (which Mr. Gray, incidentally, tends to pooh-pooh) that the current conflicts are epochal, having to do with a shift in the constitutions of the polities of the West. As the welfare state evolves into the market state, it abandons many of its responsibilities to its citizenry, and concentrates above all on the provision of opportunities to the individual. This, I think, has clear consequences for the self: there is simply more pressure on it. In “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” which appeared at the end of that great spurt of narcissistic eccentricity known as the 1960s, Saul Bellow has his elderly hero reflect (with delightful restraint) that mass individualism is relatively new and, perhaps, “has not been a great success.”
Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” (1907), with its dank crew of self-righteous sociopaths, is horribly prescient. Here we find (for example) the observation that merely to erect a building is to create a new vulnerability; here we find a revolutionist observing that the power of life is far, far weaker than the power of death. In his reading of the terrorist psyche, Conrad persistently stresses the qualities of vanity and sloth — i.e., the desire for maximum distinction with minimum endeavor. In other words, the need to make an impression is overwhelming, and a negative impression is much more easily achieved than a positive. In our era, this translates into a thirst for fame. Probably no one under 30 can fully grasp it, but fame has become a kind of religion — the opium, and now the angel dust, of the mass individual.
By some accounts it took the Ayatollah Khomeini several nauseous years of war with Iraq before he came to see the theological viability of nuclear fission (and the groundwork was then begun). Osama bin Laden has never made any secret of his admiration for WMDs: “It is the duty of Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorise the enemies of God” (statement entitled “The Nuclear Bomb of Islam,” 1998). All these tools are now for sale; and how very remarkable it is, in the larger scheme, that the world’s first megadeath madam, the metallurgist A.Q. Khan, is “a national hero” in Pakistan.
There is another good reason for wanting international terrorism to stop being “about religion.” One can think of scenarios of extortion, compellance and ransom, but only an eschatological dream could justify the clear calm night and the three million dead. On the other hand, the actors would unquestionably make an impression; and it would be super-geohistorical in size.
International terrorism, for now, represents a puny apocalypse. Mr. Bobbitt is as droll about this as anybody: since Sept. 11, “the total number of persons worldwide who have been killed by terrorists is about the same number as those who drowned in bathtubs in the US.” But at any moment it — IT — could go from nothing to everything. After an untraceable mass-destructive strike on one of its cities, what political system would ever know itself again? And all other states would be unrecognizable too, as would relations between them. Autor: Martin Amis