Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Modern life and the ever-present threat of terrorism

Last week’s terrorist bombing in the United States which killed three spectators of the Boston Marathon and injured hundreds more outline the ongoing threat of so-called “grassroots terrorism” in our modern society.

The attack was the most spectacular act on American soil since September 11, 2001. Spectacle is a primary objective for terrorist attacks, and nothing captures news media attention like explosions at heavily attended events. A common trope in movies and television shows depict similarly spectacular events to draw in the excitedly curious crowds to sell tickets. Terrorists choose their own targets with very similar rationale in mind to Hollywood directors.

That New Zealanders were glued to their news feeds watching every minute development as it happened is a perfect example of another important effect emerging from a potent mix of spectacular terrorism and the 24/7 news cycle.

While the actual attack occurred in Boston thousands of kilometres away, the distance was shrunk by technology. Worrying or talking about the bombings, as people did over the week afterwards, creates what are known as secondary victims.

The terror people feel dissipates the further away from the blast zone they live, but even though only a small group were actually present at the site, thousands or millions of people experienced it empathetically. Humans are very good at putting themselves in another’s shoes, so to speak. Terrorism leverages this natural trait by amplifying the attack far beyond its initial destructive radius.

To put the attack in perspective, 75 New Zealanders have been killed so far in 2013. These deaths all involved vehicles. While the occasional news story covers car crashes, they do not get the coverage of a terrorist attack and for good reason. Car crashes are common in our society, terrorist attacks are rare. And herein lies the reality of modern life.

Coupling the primary and secondary effects of terrorism with the political and strategic success of the acts, last week’s bombings kick sand in the idea that terrorism is defunct. Terrorism remains an extremely effective tactic for militants or disaffected actors who these days do not need large networks to create panic. All they need is homemade explosives, a cellphone, and personal motivation.

The United States was seriously unbalanced following the events of 2001. Washington reacted strongly, and some would say overzealously, to those attacks and is only just emerging from a decade of fighting a very expensive war.

Looking at the world and America’s war on terrorism, up until last Monday, it would have been obvious the United States and its allies had won. The perpetrators of the 2001 attacks have been crushed. And what remains of the al Qaeda core is either in hiding or dead.

And yet terrorism still occurs throughout the world, despite vast resources and hours dedicated to strangling the threat. Attacks still manage to slip through even though surveillance measures and capabilities have been dialled up, highlighted by the recent controversy surrounding New Zealand’s GCSB.

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told investigators that he and his brother read al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire magazine for instructions on building bombs. This magazine has been in circulation on the internet for years offering English-language articles for anyone interested in pursuing an extremely short-lived (literally) career of terrorism.

Inspire has encouraged its readership to conduct attacks by themselves using homemade explosives or weapons. It loudly warns against working in groups which increases the risk of discovery by law enforcement and emphasises simple attacks on “soft targets” such as schools, shopping malls, or even marathons.

Two explosions in Boston suggest this advice has been heeded. The lack of significant attacks in the United States over the past decade is a result mixing both observant law enforcement personnel and amateurish terrorism attempts.

Those explosions also suggest that no matter how many holes are plugged destructive attacks will sometimes slip through. Regardless of surveillance measures, there simply is no way to monitor everyone all the time. Grassroots terrorists, who have little or no contact with external colleagues, can remain hidden right up until they conduct their attack.

Terrorism as a tactic cannot be defeated with conventional bombs and bullets. Because as law enforcement responds to previous attacks ensuring they will not happen again, terrorists evolve a step further. And the arms-race groans perpetually on.

In our modern society’s mix of radically different cultures all trying to get along, disaffected people will always be a problem, albeit a minority. What they do with their feelings can sometimes result in death and destruction. But these rare events must be understood as a regrettable product of modern life.

Horribly spectacular terrorism conducted by one or two people creating isolated chaos will be a continuing reality for the world. United States President Barak Obama responded to the events last week by encouraging Americans to return to their lives and not dwell on the attacks. This is a message for the world. 

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