Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

A new and disturbing kind of silence

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Anne Applebaum has written a clear-eyed analysis of what we know – and don’t yet know – about the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai. As she notes, what’s striking here – apart from the sheer evil of the attacks – is that the world still knows nothing about the attackers. 

Terrorism has changed, but not merely in its level of violence. The terrorist organizations of the pre-9/11 world were known, in the sense that they had a professional communications infrastructure to accompany and reinforce the political messages conveyed through violence. The IRA, Hezbollah, Baader-Meinhof … even al-Qaeda. There was little chance that the world missed the message, since it came with a press release, videotape, or statement read by a hostage. Why was this so prominent in, say, Lebanon in the 1980’s, and in Mumbai today? A few possible scenarios:

1.  The terrorist groups of the past were seeking some sort of political legitimacy, and thought they could achieve it. Some, including the IRA and Hezbollah, arguably did achieve a measure of political legitimacy. The attackers in Mumbai weren’t looking for legitimacy, or any other limited set of objectives. They’re part of a post-9/11 absolutism which seeks nothing less than the complete destruction of existing political systems. In other words, this isn’t terrorism – it’s war, which, thanks to AntiMoore’s Law, is now the province of individuals as much as it is countries.

2.  The communications strategies used in previous generations of terrorism don’t work. Terrorist groups can’t simply dominate a limited set of media channels as they might have in, say, 1983. More importantly, today’s media gives the target audience an opportunity to respond, in real time. This matters. Terror depends on media to magnify fear and isolation, to create a shock effect that inhibits any sort of counter-mobilization. You can’t do that without either (a) highly centralized and controlled media, which doesn’t exist today, or (b) an act that floods all channels through sheer magnitude (e.g., 9/11).

3.  Anonymity is the message. Elaine Scarry wrote a fascinating book which theorizes that torture functions psychologically by disassociating pain from the torturer – in other words, pain becomes a characteristic of the body’s environment (e.g., this room, this chair, etc. is causing me pain).  Terrorism post-9/11 is like torture:  an attempt to convince that pain and terror originate from the victim and the victim’s environment, rather than from the terrorist.

4.  It’s state-sponsored. War by proxy, much like Libya’s sponsorship of Pan Am 103 and the bombing of a Berlin nightclub in the 1980’s. But this scenario raises a question of rational political motives. There’s no obvious reason the most likely culprit in this scenario, Pakistan, would sponsor something like this. It seems much more likely an organization would want to taint Pakistan with this – see scenario #1, above.

I think we won’t know much more in a few weeks than we do now, at least not without investigation to ferret it out. I hope none of the scenarios above are right, but I suspect terrorism is going to continue to look a lot like numbers #1-3.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with the Mumbai victims. Make no mistake – acts like these are evil, pure and straightforward.

Written by Mark

November 29, 2008 at 2:57 pm

Posted in Terrorism

Tagged with ,

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