March 15, 2004

Terrorist Tipping Points

Following up more prosaically on my thoughts about the “hard men”, the atrocity of March 11th makes me think again about what moves below the surface in the conflict with terrorism.

Somebody put those bombs on those trains in Spain, and yet that same somebody doesn’t wish to stand forward and be clearly identified, or tie these acts to some concrete goal or demand. So someone someplace has a model of causality in their head, that to do this thing without any clear public explanation will still somehow produce a result they deem desirable. But what? A general climate of fear? An unbalanced response by governments? A sick morale-booster for terrorists embattled elsewhere? A victory for the Spanish opposition? Or nothing more than a nihilistic desire to act somehow, with no real conceptual belief about what action will accomplish? Particularly if it turns out to be ETA that was responsible for March 11th (something that is appearing increasingly unlikely) that last is about the only plausible interpretation.

What March 11th really demonstrated, however, is that any time a small group of people decides to do something like this in the United States or Western Europe, they probably can. Given the degree to which Americans have portrayed al-Qaeda as boundlessly blood-thirsty and completely unprincipled, the question of the day is thus not “What will they do next?” but “Why haven’t they done more?” The answers, I think, are uncomfortable.

First, the strength of US reaction to 9/11, particularly in Afghanistan, when we were still focused on al-Qaeda and international terrorism rather than the Administration’s unhealthy obsession with Saddam Hussein, communicated something very valuable and important, that major terrorist attacks would have major consequences. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants may have reckoned that 9/11 would result in the lobbing of a few more cruise missiles at deserted camps and innocuous factories in Sudan. Having seen that this was incorrect, having suffered severe damage to their movement's fortunes, they and others may hesitate to act again against civilians within the domestic borders of the United States for fear of even graver consequences. On the other hand, this is where March 11th is a sobering reminder—because it may demonstrate that a terrorist movement which has nothing left to lose has no more fear of consequences. The worst atrocities might come paradoxically when a terrorist organization is closest to being defeated.

Second, for all of my anger at aspects of the Bush Administration’s homeland security initiatives, I still have to concede that many of the precautions taken and the investigative work completed have made it more difficult for existing terrorist cells in the United States to act. It is easy to be cynical about all the orange alerts, not the least because the Administration has been so willing to use security concerns to bolster its own narrow partisan fortunes (not something a genuine War President ought to do) but even Administration critics have to concede the very real possibility that the alerts and accompanying measures have prevented one or more attacks.

But that still leaves us with one additional consideration, which is the possibility that existing terrorist cells capable of acting have chosen not to act. This is what is so difficult to calculate. Everyone is looking at the political results in Spain and asking, “Is that what the terrorists wanted? Will that reward them?” Precisely because we have to treat terrorists as people with their own agency, making their own moral and political choices, we have to consider the possibility that they might refrain from attacking for any number of reasons, even including, impossible as it seems, their own contradictory and hellishly incoherent form of moral scruples.

This is a critical issue. Even in the best case scenario, we have to assume that there are still people at large in the United States and Western Europe who could stage terrorist attacks. Anybody who devotes even a small amount of time to thinking of plausible targets knows that not only is there a huge surplus of such targets, there must always be so in democratic societies. The train attacks in Spain could easily have happened on Amtrak: in the past ten months, I’ve sat on Amtrak trains where people in my car have left a backpack on a seat and gone to the bathroom or club car, or so I’ve assumed. If they were leaving a bomb instead, how could any of us tell? Trains only scratch the surface: a hundred ghastly scenarios spring to mind. Without any effort, I can think of ten things that a handful of suicide bombers could do in the US or Western Europe that would have devastating psychological and possibly even economic consequences at the national and international level.

If there are terrorist cells in the US and Western Europe capable of acting, and they have not acted, we can perhaps console ourselves that Afghanistan taught them to fear the consequences. We can also imagine perhaps that they are intimidated by security precautions, unimaginative in their choice of targets, or incompetent in their logistics. Far more, this all begs the question: what do they want, how do they imagine they will get it, and how does that dictate their actions? For all that it is soothingly simple to imagine them to be mindless killers who would commit any atrocity, we nevertheless face the complicated fact that they likely could have already committed atrocities beyond those already inflicted. What internal calculus tips a small group of men over to the commission of horror? There is no invasion force that can keep that tripwire permanently still: there is nothing to invade. The worst dilemma, however, is that we do not know and perhaps cannot know what the terms of that calculus are, whether it moves to action because of rigidity and repression or in the absence of it, whether it seeks anything concrete in terms of results or reactions. If it only seeks pure destruction and the maximization of pain, then I don't really understand why there have not been more attacks already. There must be more to it than that.