Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Why domestic terrorism matters

Apropos of last night's post about the white supremacists who had put together a lethal poison-gas bomb that they planned to detonate somewhere in the United States:
At least one weapon of mass destruction -- a sodium cyanide bomb capable of delivering a deadly gas cloud -- has been seized in the Tyler area.

This means, of course, that we have now found more weapons of mass destruction in Texas, in the hands of domestic terrorists, than we have in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Notably, this is the second such case already this year, and both have been cracked due to sheer blind luck. Another would-be domestic-terrorism attack was recently prevented because relatives and friends grew concerned. One has to wonder how long we're going to stay lucky.

It is important to keep in mind that the same folks who brought us Oklahoma City are still out there, still looking for opportunities to strike. And they have explicitly recognized that the post-Sept. 11 environment is ripe for taking action that benefits them.

After all, their agenda is to create as much social chaos as possible -- to so disrupt society, and divide it, and create as much terror and fear as possible, that eventually people come to believe (as they do) that democracy is a failure, that it cannot keep them secure; and so, they believe, eventually the white populace will swarm to their authoritarian agenda when that becomes clear. That has been their agenda for some time, and was the driving purpose of Oklahoma City.

They clearly see the chance now to piggyback off the Al Qaeda and anthrax attacks as prime opportunities for creating serious chaos. Consider, if you will, one of the last radio addresses made by the late William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries, remarking on the post-9/11 environment:
"Things are a bit brittle now. A few dozen more anthrax cases, another truck bomb in a well chosen location, and substantial changes could take place in a hurry: a stock market panic, martial law measures by the Bush government, and a sharpening of the debate as to how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place."

This is one of the reasons the focus, from both the media and from the upper levels of government, on international terrorism generally and Al Qaeda particularly is terribly short-sighted.

What Sept. 11 -- especially viewed in conjunction with Oklahoma City -- demonstrated irrevocably is that the threat of terrorism to America's well-being is not merely substantial but multi-faceted. Trying to tackle the problem on only one front merely leaves another exposed.

I like to cite Robert Wright's superb thinkpiece, "A Real War on Terrorism," a lot, and will do so again here. Wright points out that Al Qaeda and radical Islamic fundamentalism are really only one facet of the problem facing America and modern democracies for the next half-century and more:
For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people. They won't have to claim that they speak on behalf of a whole religion. They'll just have to be reasonably intelligent, modestly well-funded, and really pissed off. It may be hard to imagine a few radical environmentalists, or Montana militiamen, or French anti-globalization activists, or Basque separatists, or Unabomber-style Luddites, killing 100,000 people. Yet what makes this plausible is exactly what makes radical Islam such a formidable long-term threat: two enduring aspects of the evolution of technology.

First, there is the much-discussed growing accessibility of massively lethal munitions—in particular, nuclear weapons and biological weapons. (Chemical weapons, though called a "weapon of mass destruction," really aren't. They're horrible, yes; but a chemical attack by a dozen terrorists can't kill hundreds of thousands of people, as the nuclear or biological equivalent can.)

Of the two, biological weapons are in a sense spookier because the threat is so deeply ingrained in commercial progress. The things it takes to make biological weapons—fermenters, centrifuges, and the like—are in buildings you drive by routinely: hospitals, universities, pharmaceutical plants. Every year they grow in number, along with the number of people who know how to use them. And, as if it weren't scary enough that these things are essentially unregulated, the march of progress keeps creating new regulatory challenges. In July scientists announced they'd created a polio virus using mail-order DNA and a recipe available on the Internet. Hmmm ... maybe someone in the government should look into this mail-order DNA business!

If last fall's anthrax attacks were indeed, as some speculated, perpetrated by an American trying to sound a useful alarm, he/she chose a lousy germ for the job. Anthrax, though scary, is a pale harbinger of impending bio-disaster. It isn't contagious, so it's basically the equivalent of a time-release chemical weapon. Smallpox, Ebola—not to mention as-yet-unknown designer plagues—could kill millions, even tens of millions.

I could go on about the various advances that are making massively lethal attacks a layperson's sport, ranging from the already available poor man's cruise missile to the nanotechnology in Bill Joy's fevered-but-not-entirely-crazy nightmare. But the basic problem is widely recognized—Thomas Friedman called it the "superempowered angry man" in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree—even if its magnitude is underestimated and a solution to it remains unarticulated.

The second technological force behind Proposition 1 is less widely understood: the diverse threat posed by information technology. For starters, there is the obvious value of infotech in orchestrating a terrorist attack, both in the planning and execution phases. (Mohamed Atta, while awaiting takeoff on American Airlines Flight 11, used a cell phone to keep in touch with his troops.) Less obvious but more important, there is the use of ever-cheaper, ever-more-powerful information technologies to mobilize constituencies.

Wright's whole piece is worth reading and remembering. And, as he suggests, cases like the cyanide bombs are worth significant attention.

Especially if, as the CBS-11 report puts it, "unknown co-conspirators may still be free to carry out what appeared to be an advanced plot," and if in fact "more potentially deadly cyanide bombs may be in circulation."

I don't know about you, but that worries the bejeesus out of me. More, even, than the threat of an Al Qaeda attack.

P.S. There has been an arrest in the case of the Holocaust museum arson in Indiana. The suspect, as you can see, is a real piece of work.

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