The odd thing about random terror and the current war is not that one off example of it working, with the Madrid Bombings. Rather, it’s that that is about the only example I can think of where it’s worked against westerners. It has rarely been useful, let alone reliable, against others.
Gunboat diplomacy – where the trivial western warship shows up off some Asiatic or African or Latin shore – and demands concessions of pain of bombardment – looks like exercise in random terror. And, sure, it sometimes worked. Still, one wonders why. My personal suspicion is that it worked, when it did, because it humiliated the ruling class of whichever place the gunboats bombarded, illustrating their weakness and, quite possibly, putting thoughts in the minds of the underclass those rulers didn’t want there. That is, admittedly, only a guess. It also raises the question of whether gunboat diplomacy even was random terror, since it had, if my guess is right, a specific effect – the raising of a specific set of fears – in a specific set of minds.
And, speaking of bombing Asians, the Japanese were hardly the only Asians we ever bombed the crap out of; in ways much more thorough, violent and, all in all, serious, than a gunboat’s popguns could hope to. The Japanese sneered and dug in amongst the ashes of their own cities. The Vietnamese took it in pretty good stride. Just to show that even Asians can fail to learn or understand, the Viet Cong and NVA used to launch frequent rocket attacks against government held South Vietnamese cities with no noticeable effectiveness. Bombing has been used in Latin America1 a fair amount, but does not seem to have been effective there, either. And Africa has had a bit of it, too, with little useful result, even in the bombers’ terms.
So why do some groups keep trying to use it? There are probably as many motivators as there are political extremists, but three strike me as paramount, these last 50 or so years. One of these is terror as theater, in which the terrorist gets to star in his own production. Don’t discount it; many of these folks live in a fantasy anyway, where the rest of us are mere stage props. Indeed, that seems to me to be the default setting – basically sociopathy – of the intellectualism (I do not mean it as a compliment) behind much of the last half century’s politically inspired terrorism.
Another – speaking of fantasies – is urban guerrilla theory, which held as an interim objective provocations so outrageous that they would lead inexorably to the creation of a government so vile and oppressive that the people would rise up en masse to overthrow that government. They pretty much always got the government they sought; that much must be admitted. Somehow, though, the people who were supposed to rise up instead cheered while said governments proceeded to ruthlessly hunt down and exterminate the movements of which the urban guerrillas were the arm.
But in the current war (by which I don’t mean the one that began on 9/11, but the most recent phase of the longer struggle, possibly starting in Palestine in the 30s) they keep trying random terror and, barring that one success in Madrid, it hasn’t worked. They killed a few thousand of our civilians, knocked down a couple of buildings, knocked a chunk out of another, and we took out two countries and have been hunting them like rats all over the globe. Yet they keep trying. They bombed the London subways. Unlike Spain, the UK did not tuck its tail between its legs and run off from the war. They rocket Israel and get creamed in return (barring when the Israelis elect an incompetent prime minister who puts an incompetent flyboy in charge of a ground war).
Why? Why can’t they learn how useless it’s likely to be?
I think there are at least two reasons. One is that they see it as their job just to fight, leaving strategy to Allah. Their problem there is that they’re not very good at fighting us, directly, such that Allah’s purpose and generalship would be thwarted. It has been thwarted, after all, every time they’ve tried to face a western armed force since about 1571. Hence, they have little recourse but to terror, where they can at least have some effect other than being humiliated and failing their god.
But the other reason may be more important, or more important to our understanding, anyway. I think they keep doing it, keep engaging in random terror, not because of the unique success with regard to Spain, but because they don’t understand why it doesn’t work. Why not? Why don’t they understand that?
I suspect that they don’t understand it because they know themselves very well; they know random terror would work on them.
Think about the implications of that one, for a bit, and I’ll go work on next week’s column; Specific Terror.
1 Note, however, that the 1994 Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association bombing may have killed 85 partially random people, but it was probably not random terror.
Don’t miss last week’s column: Defining Terrorism: Random Acts of Terror.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.