ony Blair is right. So is George Bush. And Jacques Chirac.
Terror will not win.
But what if it is not designed to?
What if, instead, it is a basic modern correction? What if terror, generated by Islamists and others, is a maiming surrogate for big power clashes in an era that has otherwise cancelled them? What if it is the only credible disruption of peacetime that dissenters and haters can find to sponsor the mayhem once associated with battlefields?
The London carnage, like its predecessors in New York City and Madrid, depends wholly on the coercive effects of urban chaos. Cities are the Somme; railway stations are the beaches of Tarawa (or Bali); civilians are both soldiers and victims. “New” terror in this regard marks an end to a 100-year-old ethical system whose approach to violence was nearly contractual: Legal if prosecuted by the military, illicit if visited upon non-combatants.
The system began eroding in World War II, when bombing raids billed as efforts to weaken enemy morale killed tens of thousands of civilians. The justification for such raids was often specious. Official terror systematically inflicted anxiety and ruin to undermine a society’s remaining belief its own progress and well-being. It sought literally to raze any enduring sense of right.
Al Qaeda, it is said repeatedly, willingly discards the rulebook. It wages a codeless war, ruthless, ragged and wrong. Though the outlines of such a war existed long before September 11 (the IRA, Black September, and the Red Brigades among its most recent advocates), it lurked on margins of public attention, ancillary to Cold War animosities.
Moreover, terrorist targets of choice were usually political. The Red Brigades shot only upscale figures. Palestinian killers hunted down supporters of Israel (and Israel did the same in reprisals.) The IRA even adhered vaguely to Anglo-Saxon fair play by tipping the location of its bombs before they detonated.
The stakes changed after the Iran hostage crisis in 1980. Iran marched its assassination policy West into Lebanon. Libya, briefly drunk with destiny, dispatched agents to bomb discos and sabotage commercial jets. Terror intruded rudely and randomly into the Western protectorate of innocence and emerged as a weapon of unsettling girth.
September 11 upgraded the rudeness and expanded the dimension. Randomness ended: Cities and civilians, in clusters, were the targets. In the jargon of millennium, 9/11 took terror to a higher level.
At the same time, by waking Goliath, terror all but renounced winning. It would instead be the meanest nag warning on the planet. Making city-dwellers feel helpless and vulnerable became a strategy of itself.
This self-contained aspect separates current violence from the politically-driven attacks carried out by the IRA and Red Brigades in the 1970s and 80s (and those by some Palestinian factions). Leftists and nationalists sought anti-terrorist crackdowns to show the modern state’s inherent inhumanity. Reactionary response would then promote revolutionary change.
But the current killing spree merely baits big-power nationalism. It is anti-cultural.
Though Al Qaeda splinter factions say they intend their attacks to avenge American-led policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, the linkage is forced and antique. Destroying trains and skyscrapers does not elicit revolutionary results. On the contrary, it widens the divide between those seen as civil and the hidden tribes of the barbarous. It is self-sabotaging and futile in the extreme.
So why go ahead?
Narcissism plays a role. Damaged cities fuel heroic self-esteem among the disempowered. The corrugated libido of the attackers may be perverse and deluded, but the exposure and attention they receive is unparalleled in human history. Minor players and their collaborators witness the consequence of their actions on television for days, even years. Agents can observe close-up the vengeful emotionalism their actions provoke. It is an underdog’s Nirvana.
Terrorism also prevails because social conformity eclipses available radical options, dumbly dividing the world between the sane and the not. If terrorists are to fit their assigned description they must behave drastically, dramatically, prone to visual prowess. Acts lacking civilians are neither drastic nor dramatic. They are certainly not cinematic. Terror thus becomes a parody of exaggerated expectations. Chechen radicals commandeer theaters and schools (where the innocent gather) because such violations are the archetypal commonplace the law-abiding expect now from the lawless. Since September 11, urban themes — the riskiest and most spectacular — have dominated. Such themes “win” victims and coverage, but not campaigns. Again, there is no winning. Terror is not a means to an end but an end alone, a self-sustaining terminal.
When Tony Blair insists that terrorists will not deter Britons from their way of life, he adopts the dehydrated platitudes of a bygone era. Al Qaeda does not have the tools to conjure an Islamic state in Britain or the United States (though it might wish to.) Its operatives, like the secret agents of Joseph Conrad’s anarchic times, can only stain city life with tension and sporadic homicide. Achievement is measured by the imposition of commotion and the heightening of dismay and disdain. Yet such “success” is by nature temporary and must be repeated. Terrorist calamities are most successful when they elicit old-school responses from the leaders of the stricken — namely talk of war, and yes, of winning.
War remains word on which terror feeds, the one to which it responds best, the one that helped create it. So it is that the nefarious circle comes round with no end in sight.
Christopher P. Winner’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org