Editorial: What Makes Terrorists Tick?


I have long known that motivated individuals believe that their own actions, even with few resources, can make a disproportionate result in forcing the public to heed their causes. Shortly after I started my adult working life (in 1972), I encountered a left-wing minor party, the People’s Party of New Jersey. I gradually developed a sense of the great indignation felt by many of its activists, who felt that the capitalist system intentionally held many groups low. As a middle class salaried computer professional, I found that I was regarded with a certain suspicion and resentment myself, and I was hardly “rich” but I was part of the “system” and, unlike the poor or other minorities, enjoyed its tainted fruits. At a platform meeting I would be shocked when the committee advocated violence or force if necessary to advance its ends. Plotting to impose political change by force (overthrow of government) is a crime, isn’t it?


In 1982, on the very first computer that I ever owned (a Radio Shack TRS-80, complete with 64-character  black-and-white monitor) I wrote my second ever “unpublished great American novel”—and I still have its dot-matrix hardcopy printout. I proposed that KGB-sponsored terrorist commandoes would seed themselves into our large cities and simultaneously create dirty bomb explosions and contaminate large urban areas with plutonium dust. In one climactic scene sequence, gay men in a bathhouse had to be evacuated, literally out of the orgy room in their skivvies, out onto the streets and herded out of the city into a suddenly regimental and rural communal existence, ruled by a county judge. (This was about a year before it became clear where AIDS—then called GRID—would lead.) But it made perfect sense to me that Communists could try to destroy our society this way, without warning. The cornball movie Red Dawn (1984) presented a sudden “proletariat” communist invasion from Central American through Mexico. I even made up a subplot in which a right-wing corporate group is onto and plots to “draft” civilian reservists to meet such a threat, before it happens (too little, too late). It was fun!  Now, MAD (mutually assured destruction) was supposed to prevent something like this, but I don’t know if it really would if it didn’t come directly from the Kremlin or Peiking. Back around 1969, when I was in the Army, I remember having speculative discussions with other soldiers in the barracks (stateside) about such an idea. Of course, the better known public threats had been incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.


In the 1990s, with terrorists like the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh, we developed the image of the lone psycho (who might work in a small group) with extremist ideology, ranging from Ludditism to extreme anti-government activism or even Neo Fascism. We did have the 1993 World Trade Center truck bomb, the CIA grounds assassination, and various overseas incidents. Nevertheless, the nation as a whole missed the whole paradigm of the radical Islamist threat; I personally thought (while working on my first book and focusing on the national security downstream effects of the military gay ban) that the greatest threats probably came from a resurgence of Communism, probably in Russia or China or, especially, North Korea (Saddam Hussein and Iraq seemed to fit into this, as did Qadaffi).  Another threat was financial instability in Russia and Southeast Asia, countries still prone to Communism. We had anticipated the Hong Kong handover in 1997 with some fear, and as late as April 2001 there was a severe diplomatic crisis between China and Taiwan with some nuclear brinksmanship. By 2000 I was working on another  fiction novel plot, but the plutonium dust idea (it causes fatal lung cancer in every person who inhales it) was still in my fictitious whiteboard, as were various bio-threats based on slow viruses like either HIV or prions (mad Cow). Today, of course, dirty bombs and various bio-terror scenarios are among the most feared as Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Of course, we now know. Perhaps a writer like Tom Clancy can say, “I told you so!” The biggest threat seems to be radical Islam, which bears no more theological justification to a basis in the Koran than does Aryan Nation in the Christian Bible, but the scale of radical militant Islam has shocked most Americans. At this point, I cannot say with certainty that some of the other threats that I mentioned above couldn’t resurface quickly (so it is a good thing that Saddam is gone). But clearly, radical Islam (Al Qaeda and other allied groups) wants to bring down western civilization and it is shocking how close it could come with its resources. The danger is not just rogue states, it is rogue stateless small groups and even individuals; although they may have depended upon rogue states to given them sanctuary, their past inheritance of statecraft seems less important now. The radical Islamic terrorist comes from a paradoxical ilk: decentralized and nimble, but unbelievably well organized worldwide while stateless.


The danger, quite bluntly, is that a very small number of individuals could, if they got their hands on certain weapons and are willing (even eager) to commit suicide, bring about the end of stable liberal democracy and “open society,” at least if they could not be stopped from repetition. Destructive acts (whether or not they involve airline hijackintg) could target major symbols of financial power or government, attempt decapitation of government, cause enormous civilian casualties, or cause such economic property losses as to destabilized the financial system—an observation that questions the hyperindividualism of our era and recalls “family values” as necessary for hard times.  Palletized cargo is especially worrisome as a source of smuggled WMD’s. The name for this style of warfare is asymmetry.  Competitive asymmetry is in large part a result of globalization and consumer technology that can give a determined individual the means to do enormous good or enormous evil on his own. 9/11 was a melodramatic, spectacular act of war against institutions and symbolic targets, but unstoppable attacks against soft targets could cause tremendous disruption and economic damage, too.  Israel suffers this variation of these terrorist attacks in small but often repeated suicide bomber attacks by individual Palestinian or imported terrorists, usually killing or maiming relatively small numbers of civilians randomly in soft targets like restaurants, shopping malls and public transportation. There is controversy as to what future scenario is most likely and as to what remaining sleeper cells in the Unitied States are capable of, or as to whether immigration is keeping new terrorists out of the country (most of the 9/11 hijackers entered the country relatively late in the plan). There is also controversy as to how much direct control Osama bin Laden (Usama bin Laden) exists, and as to the decentralization of terrorist infrastructure.


The recent book Imperial Hubris, by the anonymous CIA analyst (Michael Scheuer), brings our questions to a certain focus.  The Bush administration has painted the Al Qaeda hatred of us as directed on the fact that we are free and live off of tainted fruits. There is some direct evidence of that: in Iraq, militant insurgents have destroyed western-style businesses as “immoral” and anti-Islam, and certainly the Taliban was obsessed with the self-righteousness of its “moral” agenda (down to the burquas of women). The CIA analyst would have us focus back on Muslim resentment of some specific policies of our government, as well as a long history of supposed humiliation of Islam at the hands of the West since about the year AD 732 (the Battle of Tours). The most notorious such policy is the political and social support given by the United States to Israel, because Israel, quite frankly, has taken away property and freedom of Palestinian citizens in the area by force at various historical points dating back to Balfour. The taking of property and denial of liberty of Palestinians is wrong even if the historical need for the state of Israel is understood as essential (after the Holocaust). So American civilians are, by this theory, put at risk for a government policy that they may, in libertarian circles at least, find morally wrong as individuals. More controversial is the outrage, often stated by Osama bin Laden, at “infidel” presence in the lands of Arabia, including Saudi Arabia with its holy shrines, Iraq as the cradle of civilization, and all other countries (the actual definition of political sovereign states in the region is of little practical consequence—Arabia is one). Why would this matter? Here I think the paradigm is telling. The mere presence of American and other western “infidels” not only question religious hegemony but also bring alien cultural values related to sex, music, the role of women, entertainment, political speech, and the like. It is a bit like the U.S. military saying that the presence of open gays in the ranks would harm unit cohesion. I know that paradigm well. It might even be like claiming that gay marriage would pollute the sanctity of marriage for heterosexuality. It is irrational, but it is a looking to the absolute.


If America abandoned Israel, and left Arabia alone and took no more oil from the place and were suitably chastened economically (like by gasoline rationing and financial collase), would it be left alone by terrorists? Maybe, or perhaps not.  (This could be forced upon us if Saudi Arabia falls to the radicals, as the 9/11 Commission privately warns.) It sounds like radical Islam believes it cannot coexist with the West and the West should move to another planet, parsecs away.  It’s more important to look at the psychology of the individual suicide bomber or terrorist. The PBS Wide Angle documentary “Suicide Bombers” focused upon the shame that a young male living in the West Bank feels at having to live without freedom or respect for his own property. If he dies a martyr, be believes that he is rewarded in the afterlife. Shame is a particularly unacceptable human emotion. It’s a feminine feeling, or desecration or abasement, enjoyed only as a perversion.


But what about well-educated young men who become suicide hijackers? Is it just “religion”?  Does this whole new war come down to religion? Partly. Remember the movie Straw Dogs? But it also seems to be about ego, the desire to give one’s life a permanent meaning that transcends one’s temporal existence. Indeed, the extreme nature of these asymmetric attacks suggests a rationalization right out of horror movies: “Because I can.” But there is something more fundamental. Personally, for me, choosing my own goals and executing them has a high priority; I would loathe myself if the best I could do was to hucksterize or peddle the interests of others in order to be paid off or even kept alive. I value the right to speak for myself publicly, even at the cost of loyalty to those who have supported me through my own shortcomings. But I live in civilization; I have the luxury of simply walking away and saying “No!” to interests with which I want no personal public connection, and living up to the libertarian idea of “do no harm.” Men who become terrorists do not come from free cultures, and they do not have the luxury of walking away from cultural influences that offend them. These men feel that they will soon be forced to compete by other people’s rules (this suggests an analogy—how I felt at age 8 when expected to play football), and that the religious paradigm (however strange to some of us) undercoating their lives is being pilloried. To protect the personality, then, one strikes back. The religious police are not enough. One needs to partake in the fight to obtain meaning. There is, however, a curious paradox. Radical Islam seems to seek meritocracy, even if the order of merit is dictated by Allah. There is, to the radical, a certain beauty and finality in that order if Allah cannot be questioned. Libertarian freedom also seeks to recognize merit, too; it is different in that it allows the individual to choose his own way, but once the individual fails he must accept the implications of failure and lack of merit. This kind of thinking, carried far enough, can eventually lead to an elistist, privileged society that seems like another kind of tyranny. In both cases (religious meritocracy and the meritocracy of hyperindividualism) there is a loss of empathy for “people as people” and for family as a socializing and freeing, even liberal institution. I wanted to explain this parallel, and I think it is important.


In fact, people like me have had the luxury of living their lives according to their own goals, in a kind of virtual, global spaces heavily dependent, however, upon infrastructure, technology, financial and political stability. We call it “liberal democracy,” or “democratic capitalism” and for me it means freedom without mandatory “socialization.” But throughout history most people have lived only for purposes chosen by others—closely tied to family, faith, and land. There is a certain arrogance to my lifestyle, and a disturbing vulnerability. The September 2004 issue of National Geographic contains a most sobering report on global warming, and we fear that we are reaching an inflection point on the development of new oil supplies anyway, while current oil supplies remain vulnerable to a wide variety of disruptions (terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, cutoffs by Iran, problems in Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria).  Freedom of mobility has long been one of our most important, even though it has facilitated urban sprawl, the two income trap, and a continued pattern of segregation. Can the free market build a new infrastructure based on more renewable resources, or will we fall back into patterns of regulation or even rationing? The financial system so far has recovered from various scandals, but faces more with pensions and eventually social security, as well as real estate, which could have some shocking weak points in an era of terrorism. Affluent young people grow up without a hint of a sense of the social obligations of the past, and, in an era of falling birthrates and a coming eldercare crisis, a large number of adults live out their lives with no concept of how to relate to children (me included).  HIV has become manageable within the male homosexual population but not in the Third World, and novel new diseases, spurned by lifestyle and technology changes, seem to come off of science fiction pages into reality.  Freedom of expression for everyone, and the freedom to publish by those of average means is provided by Internet technology, which then becomes subject to vulnerabilities and abuse by those attempting to get something for nothing (spammers) or ( as with virus writers) just to prove what they can do. Profits do provide the capital to develop new wealth, but many people take capitalism to the extreme, living in a “winner take all” world conducive to cheating (as David Callahan describes in his The Cheating Culture) and also a culture that dumps less competitive individuals out in the cold to fend for themselves and often to die. Good, productive jobs go overseas and it seems like we are left with peddling to each other, although the best new jobs require people skills and the ability to come out of one’s own space in relating to others. None of this is lost on our enemies. We do seem particularly vulnerable to collapse if hit hard enough by those determined to leverage asymmetry.


Osama bin Laden remains at large, to the best of our knowledge, and his “accomplishment” over twenty years and his ability to evade capture, is incredible singularity of purpose and seeming invincibility, all seem quite incredible. The fact that two icons of global capitalism (compared by some commentators to intrusive phallic symbols) could disappear in 102 minutes on September 11, 2001 at a “demolition” cost of a few hundred thousand dollars in a plot that was so diabolical is also shocking. There seem to be no limits in imagination of those motivated not just by temper but by a nihilistic indignation. “If I can’t have it, then nobody else can.”  Western civilization, while housing a minority of the world’s population, exercises asymmetry itself in the way it wields a technological and abstract culture that seems sometimes to value aesthetics and symbolism more than people, although the same might be said to most religion worldwide. Accepting one’s “place” in the world is, after all, seen by some people as proof of faith. Trying to overrun that acceptance is seen as supreme arrogance. 


Update: May 2005—what are the biggest threats?


So, could terrorists of any radical ideology bring our civilization to its knees and end life as we know it?


There are a few possibilities that seem sobering. The most serious threats generally have to do with radioactive materials. A large dirty bomb (radiological dispersion device) with certain payloads could render many blocks of a large city unusable for decades. Obviously, so would a small nuclear weapon. It now appears that a “homemade” device based on smuggled highly enriched uranium (HEU) may be a more probable threat than a smuggled stolen “suitcase nuke,” which very likely would not be detonatable. It is conceivable that several of these devices could be simultaneously in several cities. (Sorry, no links here on how to make them, although it seems that the basic science is available in all public libraries.) Another grisly threat is an E-bomb (EMP, electromagnetic pulse), which could consist of a nuclear warhead exploded at several miles altitude from a scud launched from an offshore ship (and shut down all electronic devices and power grids over many states) or a conventional device exploded in an airplane from air cargo (and damage a wide area). These devices could be used overseas, for example in an attempt to shut down Saudi oil fields.  It is apparent that the major security measures include customs inspections of shipments or pallets, and of accounting for loose nuclear material around the world, especially the former Soviet Union.


Chemical and biological weapons are probably very difficult to use to produce mass casualties. A petrochemical plant could be attacked with mass casualties (or possibly a nuclear power plant), or a train carrying hazardous chemicals could be derailed in a populated area. Most biological weapons are very difficult to disperse effectively. The United States and other countries are probably much better prepared to respond to a smallpox case than a few years ago, and a greater threat of an epidemic would come from a deadly influenza, occurring naturally. Still, biological agents could be released in airport terminals or subway systems. The small anthrax attacks of fall 2001 have not been solved publicly, and the possibility that finely milled anthrax exists in the wrong hands cannot be completely discounted.


Most specific intelligence reports so far have pointed to the use of large truck bombs with conventional explosives, as with the threat against five financial institutions in August 2004. Generally, Islamic terrorists seem more interested in spectacular attacks against symbolic targets than in attacks that would undermine the economic system and, particularly, urban residential real estate. 


When I worked on my first DADT book in the mid 1990s, I sometimes mentioned terrorism (Oklahoma City had happened), and I then thought that the greatest threats came from extremists on the far right or far left (North Korea, or the possibility that Communism would re-emerge in Russia). These threats may still exist, but seem less than the threats posed by radical Islam, which (according to authorities like Peter Bergen or Michael Scheuer) seems more outraged by American presence in Islamic lands (now especially Iraq) and support of Israel than with American cultural values and lifestyles (this is in contrast to radical right and radical left terrorists). Another observation about the “war on terror” comes from asymmetry: average citizens are as likely to stumble across major tips or clues as is organized law enforcement and the military. For example, I have had four tips sent to me since 2002, and all were potentially serious.


So what makes these guys (and sometimes women) tick? Two things. One is a reaction to a sense of shame caused by what they perceive as the aggressive impositions of others. The other is more basic: the self-importance that goes with exaggerated religious or “moral” self-righteousness. Until 9/11, I never personally took seriously that we could lose it all because of religion – even given the religion-based homophobia that I have encountered all my life.


©Copyright 2004 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use.


Book review for 9/11 Commission

Book review for Peter Bergen’s “Holy War, Inc.” about Osama bin Laden

Book review of Michel and Herbeck: “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing”

Book review of Callahan’s “The Cheating Culture”

Discussion of 9/11 films.


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