The Futility Of Terrorism By Max Boot


DeM Banter: Interesting piece by Max Boot…nice historical review…always fascinated by the first sect of assassins or hashishans…but, I have been pondering these “eras” for a few years now–through all the various “revolutions” or “ages” (bronze, enlightenment, industrial, information) we humans are a bit slow in the uptake and how these eras have changed warfare. Terrorism is fueled by information and has been accelerated by the Information Age…as blitzkrieg and mechanical warfare were accelerated during the industrial revolution–yet our weapons, tactics, strategies all lag a great deal behind said era. How long did we fight in line and column after the dawn of the rifled barrel? Terrorism will continue to evolve…perhaps futile now, but will it remain so? I really don’t know, but something to think about.

Wall Street Journal
April 17, 2013
Pg. 15

Terrorists are by definition weak. Weaken them further by refusing to be terrorized.

Boston — President Obama’s initial reluctance to label the bombing of the Boston Marathon an act of terror was odd; his correction of the record on Tuesday was welcome. Although no information has been released so far about any suspects, it is doubtful that this terrible attack, which killed three and maimed many more, was the work of criminals or apolitical lunatics such as the Newtown, Conn., killer Adam Lanza. Both crooks and kooks prefer to kill with firearms. Explosives, by contrast, are the signature weapon of terrorists.

It is no coincidence that the era of modern terrorism began at almost the same time that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite: 1867. There had been a few isolated terrorist gangs before then—which is to say, groups that murdered civilians in order to further a political or religious agenda. The Sicarri, the Jewish dagger-men who killed Roman collaborators in first-century Judaea, come to mind. So do the Assassins, the Shiite sect that terrorized Middle Eastern leaders in the Middle Ages. But such examples are few and far between, whereas the late 19th century saw the flowering of the first age of international terrorism, featuring such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan, the Irish Fenians, the Russian Nihilists and the anarchists who operated in both Europe and the Americas.

Their growth was greatly aided by the invention of portable weapons such as breech-loading revolvers and especially dynamite, which was 20 times more powerful than the gunpowder that Guy Fawkes and his fellow Catholic conspirators had used in an attempt to blow up the British Parliament in 1605.

Just as important was the invention of the telegraph and the high-speed printing press, which made possible the rise of cheap newspapers and magazines—the world’s first mass media. Terrorism is above all an act of communication, insofar as terrorist groups are too small and too weak to fight conventional armies in the open field. Unlike guerrilla groups, most purely terrorist organizations don’t even attempt attacks on security forces; they prefer to strike “soft” targets such as the Boston Marathon, where they know that their actions, the more heinous the better, will attract widespread publicity. (Note, however, that many insurgencies use both guerrilla and terrorist tactics, striking both security forces and civilians, as the Irish Republican Army and the Viet Cong did.)

The anarchists called terrorism “propaganda by the deed,” and so it remains. If you want to know why terrorism has spread so much since its modern origins in the 19th century, the growth of the mass media is a large part of the explanation. With the rise of the penny press, followed by moving pictures, radio, television, satellite television, mobile telephony and of course the Internet, terrorists have more ways than ever before to get out their message. They strike precisely because they know that their acts will generate feverish coverage—unless, as in the case of Iraq during the past decade, their atrocities become so regular that they cease to shock.

Unlike Iraqis, Americans are still shocked by domestic terrorism, of which, mercifully, we have had precious little since 9/11. So the Boston Marathon bombing got the blanket news coverage its perpetrator(s) presumably wanted. It is doubtful, however, that they will achieve their larger objectives—whatever those might be (so far there has been no claim of responsibility). While some terrorists have changed history, few if any have achieved what they set out to achieve—and when they did so, it was usually by expanding beyond purely terrorist attacks.

Hezbollah is a prime example: It achieved notoriety in the early 1980s with suicide-bomber attacks on Israeli and Western targets in Lebanon, including the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in 1983, which killed 241 sailors and Marines. But the “Party of God” didn’t achieve its immediate objective until 2000, when Israeli troops finally left southern Lebanon. By then, Hezbollah had long given up suicide bombings in favor of roadside bombings and ambushes in the classic guerrilla mode.

One of the few other terrorist groups remotely as successful as Hezbollah was the Young Bosnians a century ago. With support from the Serbian Black Hand, they assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. Their goal wasn’t to spark World War I but to create a state uniting Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and other South Slavs. This they achieved, but only indirectly: Yugoslavia emerged in 1918 out of the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Another notable terrorist group—al Qaeda—also managed to trigger a war, in its case an American invasion of Afghanistan following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But the bulk of the evidence suggests that this wasn’t Osama bin Laden’s objective: He was hoping to cripple the U.S. and drive it out of the Middle East, so he could overthrow the “near enemy”—moderate Muslim regimes. Some of these regimes have fallen but as a result of popular uprisings, not because of al Qaeda’s atrocities. It’s true that al Qaeda has inflicted considerable costs on the U.S. by dragging us into Afghanistan, but that is scant comfort to the dead bin Laden or his decimated central organization.

Most other terrorist groups don’t even have as much impact as al Qaeda. Most, like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Weathermen and the Italian Red Brigades of a few decades ago, or the earlier anarchists and Nihilists, disappear without a ripple. Unfortunately, even unsuccessful terrorists can stay on the loose for years, even decades.

The resiliency of al Qaeda in Iraq should be no surprise: Its operatives are suspected of killing more than 55 people across Iraq on the same day as the Boston Marathon bombing. Al Qaeda is, after all, operating in a country with a corrupt and ineffectual government. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the Baader-Meinhof Gang, which never had more than a few hundred adherents, managed to operate in a society as orderly and law-abiding as West Germany from 1970 to 1992. Or consider the fact that Eric Rudolph, the right-wing extremist who bombed the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (an attack that closely resembles the Boston Marathon bombing) and who subsequently targeted a series of abortion clinics, wasn’t caught until 2003. And he never left American soil.

This history suggests that it may be a while before the culprit or culprits behind the Boston bombing are caught, if indeed they ever are. Meanwhile, we must do our best to make sure that the terrorists don’t achieve their objective—to terrorize us. As the British said in World War II: Keep calm and carry on. I did my small, unheroic bit on Tuesday by traveling to Boston as scheduled to speak about, of all subjects, the history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

Mr. Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present” (Liveright, 2013).

One Reply to “The Futility Of Terrorism By Max Boot”

  1. Some might say it is the last desperate gasp of a person or organization seeking attention. Unfortunately, the human has not evolved, in recent times, as fast as the weapons technology humans use has evolved. There is still a relevant dichotomy between those that have power and means, and those desperate enough to attempt extreme measures to get some of that. It is too bad that some rare few are still grinding axes and being “sore losers” over some real or perceived slight they may have received. It is even more unfortunate that some are willing to waste others’ lives in the pursuit of their vision, ascent to power, or personal “glorification”. For what it is worth, I am not so sure that these terrorists are so different from the end of the world doomsday religious types. While the mechanism may be slightly different, the result is the same, and it is tragic.

    The good news is that these are infrequent events in the modern society where most of us get along for the greater good. That these terrorists have a chance to succeed at what they do is only because they can breech a trust with the rest of us. By that I mean that every time I get on the train/plane/highway/etc, I trust the others around me to at least peacefully do the same and not do evil. Personally, I like that kind of an existence and do not wish to surrender any of that freedom to a terrorist, or anyone else for that matter.

    To address your comment about weapons and tactics lagging, I would remind you of Douhet, who pointed out the value of anticipating changes in the character of warfare. I would also say that people will respond in whatever way they can, and humans are still just flesh and bones. Just because we have F-22’s and M-1 tanks, doesn’t mean that “old school methods” won’t still work, or that less technological approaches are not better suited for some tasks. (Even Hollywood gets this, take Skyfall as an example.) In the terrorist case, it is a different “war” fought with different means for a different objective than what the rest of us are up to. At the risk of oversimplification, while you and I may be trying to create a better world, or add some more vintage Mustangs to a collection, someone else may have a different idea, and a different approach to achieving their goals. We all need to recognize this for what it is, and work toward a world that preserves all the good freedoms and opportunities that we enjoy today while being a better place for all, thereby reducing the need for extreme measures. We all need to never forget that we can’t make everybody happy all the time… So be careful and aware.



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