Suicide for the shock value, not the tactical value

On 9/11, we all wondered how 19 men had lived for a year among us and still given their lives to carry out such acts. Now people wonder even more at how young native British men would give their lives to kill random fellow Britons.

But there is something different here that troubles me. Most suicide terrorists ostensibly use this tactic because there are targets you can only attack if you give your life. Suicide was an essential part of flying a plane into a building.

But you very plainly don’t need to kill yourself to set off a subway bomb. Even with increased vigilence, anybody could leave a backpack behind, rush out the doors just as they are about to close, and then blow up the bomb as the train enters the tunnel, without dying or even getting caught (except perhaps on camera.) There was almost no tactical need for these men to kill themselves. Yes, it makes it a little more certain to do it that way, but we hope that committed terrorists (especially with such clean pedigrees) are not so many in number that they can be wasted this way.

But they were wasted this way, and I think deliberately. I suspect they were chosen not as the most committed, but as the most unlikely, just for the shock value, the idea that your neighbour could be a suicide bomber. And strong shock value it is, because while you don’t have to die to bomb a train, there are a lot of targets where willingness to die is tactically necessary to carry it off, and it’s close to impossible to defend against such attacks.

Those who think careful ID checks and national ID cards will stop terrorists now must step back. These kids had clean ID. The security cameras have helped discover the story but of course could do nothing to prevent it.

I have contended (to much opposition) that terrorism and suicide bombing is a tool used against democracies that are accused of oppression. A recent book (Dying to Win by Robert Pape) now backs this up. The answers are not good.

These kids had clean ID

That's not what I've been hearing. I've heard of two kids who were visibly angry at the war in Iraq and a third who was previously investigated as a potential problem. Part of the problem was that their friends and families stood by and watched the problem develop. This is no different than the postal worker.

Angry at the war?

Being angry at the war isn’t going to get your ID number on a terrorist watch list so you can’t board the subway — if they were willing to go so far as to require ID to board the subway. I suspect at least 3 of these kids could have gotten on planes with their IDs, if not all 4, and they were chosen for that.

Short of alien mind-control, you’re not going to have your pick of clean-cut junior achievers to recruit for suicide attacks, but you can certainly, it seems, get your pick of people whose IDs would not be on watchlists. (Watchlists are useless if the terrorists have more than a tiny recruiting pool. You just send your candidates — unarmed — past the checkpoints. If they are harassed, you can’t use them. If they go through fine, you’ve got great recruits now assured an easy path.) Watchlists only exist to give the appearance of doing something, and in a more cynical vein, they are a tool by those who want more surveillance architecture as a matter of principle.

There’s a sick logic

There's a sick logic behind it for the plotters -- the perps are dead, and all the leads, captured on videotape, disappear with their deaths.

There's nothing for the police to follow up on -- no people to find. The fact that the kids all came from Leeds could be intentional misdirection. For example, they could have trained in any other town in England -- or even in Pakistan.

Few have writeen as well about the expendibility of agents as John Le Carre. See, for example, The Little Drummer Girl on the utilization of young people in intelligence. Carre has an Israeli agent do it, but of course, it's these terrorist groups that are exploiting ever younger kids.

Multiple threats

Malicious intent makes terrorists worrisome, but we face threats every day from anonymous drunk drivers and speeding vehicles, too (and against which significant security precautions exist). And some malicious events cause more handwringing over the question of foreseeability and preventability. Was Columbine preventable? Oklahoma City? Serial killers have a different mindset, but there are examples with parallel results.

Determined individuals can hide very effectively in society, and even those closest to them can be fooled. Dennis Rader (BTK) is one example. Jeffrey Dahmer's neighbours had such nice things to say even after he was caught. Checking their ID would not have revealed anything.

God forbid society ever leaves any individual feeling so utterly insignificant that they start thinking multiple murder is a path to fame. And there are countries which seem to be working to undermine families and encouraging the state to raise the children in a prescribed impersonal manner: what results will that produce?

All that being said, identification (including CCTV systems) provides significant value during the investigation phase, even if its value in the prevention phase is almost nil.

Terrorism works

The goal of terrorism is to cause the crackdown and the overreaction. It is to cause soldiers to shoot innocents who don't stop at checkpoints (http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/04/gen_mcchrystal_weve_sh...). It forces democracies to be "seen to act" rather than to take the time to carefully solve the problem (although the best do both).

Terrorism is a police problem. It also gains adherents when the educational system fails, when economies buckle, or when there is sigificant change.

The difference today is that it's no longer a bomb in a horse drawn wagon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wall_Street_bombing) but a plane full of fuel, a rocket at a school, or a dirty bomb.

The scope of damage that terrorism can now achieve makes it completely different from the danger of drunk drivers. Although drunk drivers will kill more people each year than terrorists, if the world is going to end in a nuclear explosion, terrorism is likely (today) to be partly or completely the cause.

Terrorism also shifts politics and government to the right. Imagine how right wing the US would be if what happens in Israel (or Afghanistan) was happening here every day? We'd be a dictatorship. I'm not talking about the "hey they're going to tax me so they must be communist" tea party movement. I'm talking about a right wing military takeover of the kind imagined at the outset of this nation by members of the Society of Cincinnatus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_the_Cincinnati).

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