A key phrase in my recent e-mail exchanges has been, “The world has gone crazy.” The hostage drama in Moscow; the shooting spree in the Washington, D.C. area; the bombing of two nightclubs in Bali; the Finnish teenager who blew up himself and six other people in a suburban shopping mall; the killing of a Japanese lawmaker; the assault on U.S. marines in the Middle East; the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan — all these terrifying events have happened in the space of only three weeks, and we are still trying to come to grips with them. Is this the World War III prophesied by many after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last fall? A world war without a front line and diplomacy, grand strategy and great battles, a war waged by individuals against societies and states when the attacking individuals are almost omnipotent and the attacked entities are bigger but all but helpless?
Maybe World War III is still too flashy a term, but the violence we are witnessing now is definitely something new. True, humankind has never been known for meekness, but even so, the post-9/11 carnage is somehow different. Its outstanding feature is that it is executed by tiny groups of people or even loners, with the most horrific results. Two dozen al-Qaeda members killed 3,000 people in New York and Washington and annihilated two gigantic landmarks of the modern Western world, the twin towers. Fifty Chechen terrorists captured 750 people in downtown Moscow, making Russia shudder. A retired U.S. Army sergeant and his 17-year-old companion shot 10 people inWashington and by so doing successfully paralyzed the metropolitan area for almost three weeks. A teenage loner in the suburbs of Helsinki devastated Finland’s self-esteem and sense of security by detonating a single bomb. The number of people involved in the Bali attack is unknown, but in all likelihood we are talking about something less than a platoon.
Fanatics or loonies did shoot, blow up and kidnap in the past, but the zone of terror they caused used to be limited, local, national. This is not the case anymore. The al-Qaeda attack on the United States is very much connected to the Chechen attack on Moscow in October 2002; probably the same bin Laden people who trained the 9/11 hijackers also trained the Moscow hostage-takers. The two snipers arrested in Maryland had proclaimed their solidarity with the Sept. 11 attack. The fact that one of them is a convert to Islam is unimportant; what really matters is the man’s fierce determination to undermine a society he didn’t like. As for the bombing of the two nightclubs in Bali, it is an obvious echo of Sept. 11.
Nowadays terror often flares up unexpectedly and in the most unlikely locations. True, nobody expected the Chechen rebels to distribute cookies to the Muscovites after the 10 years of bloodshed in Chechnya, where Moscow is attempting to reign in Islamic fundamentalism and separatism — but Bali? What could an Indonesian probably hold against Australian youngsters vacationing on his beautiful island and supplying his country with badly needed hard currency? A nightclub packed by teenagers is not the USS Cole, and Australia is not a great power determining global politics. Yet, the terrorists attacked the two nightclubs as viciously as if they were slaughtering the golden calf of capitalism.
Has anyone been to Finland in the last couple of years? The country looked as stable as Mount Everest. People went there to relax and escape the stress of big-city life, and the suburbs of Helsinki used to be as safe as the waiting room of a family doctor. Why did the guy make his bomb? It looks like his friends are clueless and so are the Finnish police.
Nobody can feel safe and nobody feels safe. Some people I know still worry about their retirement plans, but quite a few others are saying that now it is time to spend money and even run up huge debts with credit companies. The latter viewpoint has some value. Indeed, if a teenager can blow you up while you are buying deer pate in a sleepy town on the fringes of Europe, and if a party at a seaside resort can end not with a hangover but with a big bang, it looks like it is time to stop placing much trust in the future.
What makes us feel really insecure is that we know that more and more we are going to have to deal with copycat crime. It is hard to believe that even Islamic terrorists in Israel, Indonesia, the United States, Chechnya or Pakistan are really united in some orderly network where everything is centrally planned and where everything goes through a straight chain of command. Nowadays terrorists operate like viruses: disorganized, random, but terrifyingly effective. Unfortunately, unlike viruses, they do have brains and emotions. A success of one particular blood-bath makes other bacilli work harder.
It is clear that there is no easy solution to the challenge, if there is a solution out there at all. The campaign in Afghanistan has amounted to nothing except the creation of an insecure new regime in Kabul propped up by Western troops and loans. Russian President Vladimir Putin may now flatten Chechnya, but how many Chechens does it need to stage another terrorist attack? And last but not least, what do you do about loners who have no territory at all, no base, definitely no network and sometimes even no clear agenda?
The only encouraging thing we can say to ourselves is that the new wave of violence is so recent that we literally haven’t had time to meditate on its causes, much less think of countermeasures. As a species, we are almost as resilient as cockroaches, and thus there is always hope.
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