In class today we discussed terrorism. It was the usual fare — terrorism is a strategy, it can be very rational (if also unethical), effective, and even understandable. It is usually a strategy of weaker non-state actors, and can include various forms ranging from IRA attacks after phoning in the location to use of a weapon of mass destruction. We discussed Islamic terrorism, as well as libertarian extremist terrorism (Timothy McVeigh), and the potential for third world vs. first world economic terrorism. And of course we examined the root causes of terrorism, counter-terrorist methods, and all the usual stuff.
What strikes me now in 2010 is the way in which terrorism as a fear has mostly disappeared. A college freshman was only 9 years old when 9-11 took place, and even college juniors and seniors tend to emphasize how little they understood what was going on at the time. However even in the general public the constant fears and rumors of possible strikes have given way to yawns. Terrorism is no longer a top concern, and especially not an emotional topic like it once ways. 9-11 has gone from being a palpable national travesty to a day like Pearl Harbor Day — it was horrible, but it’s history.
On one level, this is good. The paranoia and panic after 9-11 were clearly misplaced, and out of fear the country made numerous mistakes — started wars which did more harm than good (and from which we still are having trouble extricating ourselves), and embraced a hyper stimulus of an economy during a boom which caused an artificial bubble and helped precipitate a major economic crisis. Looked at that way, the 9-11 terrorists succeeded in doing considerable harm — or at least in goading us to undertake actions which harmed ourselves. Putting aside fear is a good thing.
Yet fear should be replaced by reasoned and realistic consideration; instead it’s been replaced by apathy. Terrorism doesn’t matter any more because people don’t think about it. If we woke up Friday morning and found out that New York had been hit by nuclear terrorism, the fear would return, and the same kinds of mistakes and emotional turmoil would emerge. It’s not that we’ve conquered fear, only that it passed. If you’re afraid of flying and you avoid air travel, you still fear flying.
It was eight years between the first attempt to take down the World Trade Center and the 9-11 attack which succeeded. Since then nine years have passed. Al qaeda still exists, and other networks certainly span the globe, hoping to figure out a way to outdo the spectacular attacks of 9-11.
And that’s what worries me. I have no doubt that al qaeda wants to hit the US again. But Bin Laden is no dummy; something minor like bombing a shopping mall or even shooting down a plane at take off would make the news, but pale in comparison to 9-11. For al qaeda the next attack has to make 9-11 look like a warning shot. It has to be deadlier and more spectacular than the downing of the Twin Towers and attack on the Pentagon. That is how the mind of Bin Laden seems to operate.
In the news, stories abound about poor communication between government agencies and lack of preparation for the aftermath of an attack. These stories have been consistent since 2002, only then people seemed to care. Osama no longer has visible camps in Afghanistan, but in the Pashtun border lands of Pakistan the organization can still operate.
The one certain way to score a bigger hit than 9-11 would be with (a) weapon/s of mass destruction — a crude nuclear device, or some kind of chemical attack in a very public and important location (or a number of them at the same time). And, because we’ve drafted away from thinking about these issues, perhaps war weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re not psychologically prepared for another jolt. It would stymie any effort at economic recovery and lead to calls for everything from another war (Tom Tancredo: “Nuke Mecca!”) to extreme isolationism. I have no idea what would happen, but it could be a devastating blow for a country already weakened by economic crisis and prolonged wars.