77 North Washington Street
On September 11 this issue of The Atlantic Monthly was within a few days of closing when what President George Bush called the first war of the twenty-first century began. Soon afterward I read this, in a book called Terrorism and the Liberal State, written in 1977 by the political scientist Paul Wilkinson:
The theory of terrorism as a political weapon is based upon a number of assumptions about human behaviour which are either false or unproven: (i) that persons faced with threats to life and limb will ultimately always surrender their allegiances, principles or beliefs to save themselves; (ii) that terrorism invariably leads to terrorisation of the target and victims; and (iii) that consequently when they have been exposed to a given quotient of coercive intimidation they will inevitably suffer a collapse of will and submit to their persecutors.
Among those who have dreamed of revolution and new orders, there has always been much faith in what the nineteenth-century anarchist and theorist of terror Mikhail Bakunin called "propaganda of the deed." Johannes Most, a German socialist and advocate of terrorism, was an early proponent of mass public slaughter as a means of inducing a transformative fear. All the great monsters of the past century's great, monstrous societal schemes were convinced of terror's power to force submission. Hitler thought the London blitz would drive the British to their begging knees; Stalin thought his purges would strike such a fear into the hearts of the Russian people that they would never challenge their masters again. The anarchists were wrong, the fascists were wrong, the communists were wrong. The interesting—and the wonderful—truth is, as Wilkinson wrote, that "the overall track record of terrorism in attaining major political objectives is abysmal."
P. J. O'Rourke reports in this issue from Israel, where terror aimed at breaking the will of the people has been a fact of life since the nation's creation. As O'Rourke observes, what is obvious in a land defined by decades of terrorism is that terrorism's failure is essential, enduring, and in the end, definitional. It is not that terrorism doesn't inspire terror. Of course it does; and it inspires other strong emotions as well—fury, despair, grief, a hunger for revenge. But as any visitor to Israel—and, now, to New York or Washington, D.C.—knows, it does not do what its adherents wish to believe it does. It does not cause a people to "suffer a collapse of will and submit to their persecutors."
Will doesn't collapse as easily as that, it turns out. People don't submit to their persecutors as readily as that. The reason for this is basic. The idea behind the philosophy of terror is that inflicting great and random pain on innocent people will shatter the collective illusion about the natural order of things—God's in his heaven, and all that—and that the shattered people will consequently suffer a collective emotional implosion. But the fact that bad things happen to innocent people is in the natural order of things, and we all know this.
Everybody dies. Every day we are surrounded by death: Newspapers are filled with stories of cruelty and barbarism, murder and rape and torture and famine and disease. Obituary pages are filled with accounts of lives cut short for no good reason. Hospitals are filled with people groaning under the burden of pain that will be relieved only by the end.
If human beings were as terrorists imagine them to be, the weight of these things would be unbearable. It is unbearable for some of us, and it weighs heavily on all of us to at least some degree. The human narrative, as we write it in novels and poems and stories, is a tale of never getting over the shock of life.
The murder of more than 6,000 people on a perfect summer day adds a great deal to that shock, but in the end it only says to us: You know this already.
The real human response to the horrors of life is to put them out of the mind—by focusing on the glories or the duties of life. For this reason terror campaigns provide their own antidote. They provide the people who are supposed to be terrorized with a powerful new duty—to save themselves, to destroy those who would destroy them. This is where we are headed now.