Small World: The Curse of Modern Terrorism

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Patriots’ Day. As you all know, that is the day New Englanders plant peas for harvesting and eating on July 4 with salmon. And, it is the occasion for the Boston Marathon.

This year, it was also the day of a terrorist bombing that took three lives and wounded over 170 innocent bystanders.

We take terrorism to be an aspect of modern life. It wasn’t always that way. There were assassinations, of course, before Julius Caesar and long after. There have been mass killings on and off the battlefield. Think of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. But, there was never a clan or sect-based terrorist “profession,” never the slaying of totally innocent civilians in order to create anger, grief and fear. There was never the use of such killings to force an adversary to behave as terrorists would have him do. It may be some time — maybe never — before we learn what the two Chechen terrorists hoped to accomplish with their bombs.

The Boston bombers were, as police experts predicted, two individuals, who produced and planted a primitive weapon. In a sense, this kind of terrorism is little different from the shootings of children in Newtown or of the random victims slain across the nation. We call the gunmen mentally disturbed and think that the answer to the problem may lie in improving mental health facilities or in controlling access to weapons. All reasonable measures, but as we also saw last week they are not without opponents. The pro-gun folks would not have their individual right to bear arms hindered, regardless of the predictable consequences.

Perhaps more traditional societies have more built-in restraints — family, community — binding their members and limiting their freedom of action. The lone individual doesn’t easily break those bonds to express his anger. If he does, in the typical case he will join with an organization — in these days often religious — which will offer him a new structure and discipline. Al Qaeda is an example. There are others recruiting in Pakistan, Afghanistan and around the Middle East and Africa. In America, however, we are so strongly individualistic that it seems perfectly natural for a solitary killer to go to work with his gun or his pressure cooker. We don’t even want to put his name on a list of those who own guns — it might limit his freedom of action or enable the Feds easily to track him down.

In a sense, we foster these new age terrorists by our reaction to their attacks. The inevitable, appropriate, strong and trumpeted response of security agencies and government officials and the constant hype by the media convince the terrorists they are achieving their ends by reshaping our lives and by making us pay for perceived wrongs. I used to think during the Iranian Hostage crisis that if the president and the press would simply quiet down and turn to another subject, we specialists might solve the problem. No chance of that today. That solitary way hasn’t been available since kings and princes were captured and ransomed during the Crusades. Nowadays, there’s always someone with a better idea looking over your shoulder.

Happily, superb police work — with fine civilian assistance — brought a speedy and efficient end to the Chechen bombers’ venture. The tiny number of Americans who knew about the long fight of Chechens against their Russian oppressors will now be expanded by a vast number of us who now know only of their ruthless, brutal and futile attempt to achieve recognition or revenge for their cause. The stupidity and evil of the two brothers will long remain in our memories — unfortunately for the decent people of Chechnya.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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