The explosions in London this past week, which seem to have killed about a hundred innocent civilians, have caused damage far in excess of the body count. They have shown a path to victory for the terrorists. At least such victory as can ever be achieved by non-sovereign forces.
The good news is that they are not likely to see it that way. As Abba Eban famously said about the Palestinians, “They never miss a chance to miss a chance.” This new breed of Arabists, who have forsaken nationalism for a gruesome and bloodthirsty version of sainthood, are hardly noted for their pragmatic handle on reality. Only their own unwise, if somewhat predictable, overreaching can save us now. But perhaps a clear head would serve us better in such a moment; let’s take a deep breath and start at the beginning.
It is a self-evident truth that the terrorists cannot defeat the great nations of the world. As long as war and victory are defined in classical terms, the battle of civilization versus terrorism could be won by one garrison of men armed with fly swatters. A roving band of bombers is not an army. In smaller countries, a few guns can sometimes enable guerrillas or mercenaries to hold some rural territory. Not so in your G-8 type industrialized nations. Surely no one expects that al Qaeda will suddenly conquer Shropshire-on-the-Bramble or Codger Bluffs, Idaho.
Even the scenario that so captivates pundits and policymakers, where a rogue nuclear nation donates a spare nuke to the terrorist cause, is fanciful at best. We all read The Mouse That Roared as kids and the image of a gang of eccentrics with a “Q-Bomb” bringing Uncle Sam down off his stilts, if not quite to his knees, was not without some grudging romance. And if guys at Langley want to draw up contingency plans against such an eventuality, tax money well spent. Still, sovereign nations, even those given to roguery, tend to be control freaks about weaponry of that caliber. They will give popguns and explosives to independent contractors, not their nuclear arsenal.
However, just as terrorism redefines war, it can redefine victory. There is no need to defeat the West, but it can be stripped of its defining characteristic: freedom. It can be badgered and harassed and browbeaten until it becomes completely consumed by the politics of paranoia. If our country and its peers turn into fretful fortresses, we will be trapped into a barricaded insularity that will wilt our very souls. We will pay a high price in creativity and productivity. Victory will be ours, but only by a technical knockout; there will be no dominance and little pride.
Those bombs in London were simple devices, unsophisticated in their destructiveness, a bull in our urban china shop. They point up the tragic fact that no great technical marvels are required to make us bleed. There is no need for dramatic scenery like the World Trade Center anymore. Global television and the Internet guarantee instant worldwide coverage anyway. Just think of what would happen if tomorrow a small follow-up bomb would get a few people on a London bus, then two days later another few in a crowded mall. Suddenly England would be Israel, fighting a shadowy and invisible enemy that can never really win but can all too often deliver stinging reminders of his presence. There is something to fear: fear itself.
No one is more effective against terrorism than Israel. All nations turn to it as a model and often send their men to be trained in the Holy Land by hard-bitten veterans of the endless clash. Yet no one can honestly deny that terrorism has eroded the Israeli national spirit. It is still a fabulous, plucky state brimming with innovation and ambition, but the citizens feel acutely the isolation conveyed by the spectacle of near-empty and bankrupted hotels.
The same can happen to London and Paris. All it takes is a relatively small bomb here and there, say one every two weeks. The patterns of life and love and commerce would be altered beyond recognition within a few months. Think back to the snipers riding around Washington, D.C., in a beat-up old jalopy, often too broke for a motel room, yet forcing an entire major region of the most powerful nation in the world into cowering behind their fences, scurrying home at night and huddling indoors.
Fortunately for us, these vicious little people are still, to quote Disraeli about his opponents, “intoxicated by the exuberance of their verbosity.” They still have grandiose visions of triumphing in some titanic clash of civilizations and getting Madonna into a burqha. Let us pray that they keep saving up for the Big One and that we can succeed in thwarting those plans. If they ever settle for the role of permanent pest, truthfully we have no solution.
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