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Terrorists and Bombs


Analysis > Terrorists and Bombs


Not long after the Live 8 concert, on 7th July 2005, London was rocked by five suicide bombers. Perchance I was out of town that day, at my daughter's graduation. I know people who came close to death, catching the train before and the train after, but thankfully not one of the four which were blown up.

Terrorism is an extreme but also effective form of changing minds (if you live to tell the tale). It grabs attention with threats and actuality of death and destruction, and a fanatic minority can hold a terrorized majority in thrall.

Suicide extremism

One of the ways that terrorist work in today's mad world is in suicide bombings, and these horrors that Israel, Iraq and others have endured are now reaching into western capitals. America and New York was sharply awoken by the uniquely effective 9/11 attacks. The bombing in Madrid changed the course of a general election. And now London has its tale to tell.

Suicide bombing is not new. The kamikaze pilots of World War II gave their lives for their country as they flew their planes into American ships. Today's bombers do it for political and religious reasons.

A frightening thing about suicide bomber is the thought that a person will willingly die to kill others. This, in itself, changes minds. If the unthinkable come true, then what else might happen? All of a sudden the rules that hold the world together are no longer valid. When we cannot predict, then we feel out of control, which is a scary place to be.

It is all the more scary that the bombers seemed so normal. One of the London bombers was a schoolteacher who was so dedicated to his children he was picked for a visit to Parliament. We look over our shoulders at the next person on the train: could they be a bomber? Am I about to die?

A stairway to heaven

Not only do the terrorized have their minds changed: the bombers also are transformed from ordinary people also have their minds changed. Many of the early methods of creating a suicide bomber may include variants on conversion techniques.

A particularly powerful method is to make dying for the cause an act of such selflessness that it automatically guarantees you an entry into heaven. This is quite an effective move, as it appeals to very basic need for survival, such that committing suicide is the best way of living forever. Seems like a good deal? Good enough, it seems.

Not only are individuals converted: whole societies can conclude that suicide in the name of a cause is a good thing. Mothers proudly send their sons and daughters to oblivion in the belief that they are helping the cause and creating saints. And mothers around the world associate with them and shiver.

Random acts of terror

It takes very few people to terrorize an awful lot more. All you need to do is make the terrorist acts terrible, and then strike when and where people least expect it. In guessing what will happen in the future, we falsely assume that the size of the act represents the size of the threat and so feel in significant danger. The London bombs killed over 50 people. Many more are killed in car accidents every day, yet we do not fear the cars speeding past us.

The random element of terror again makes things difficult to predict and so we are sent in a tailspin or fear. One of the rules for bringing up children is to be predictable in your praise and punishment. If the child does not know if and when you are going to explode, they will grow up fearful or aggressive as a way of coping.

The collaboration of the media

The dilemma for the media in terrorist events is that if they report it, then they are collaborating with the terrorists in spreading terror. Without news reports, terrorists only kill a number of people. With the support of the media, they can hold millions to hostage.

For weeks after the London bombs, newspapers and TV reports kept bringing back to us the horror of the day. Interviews with victims and bystanders help us all relive in detail the terror. In 9/11, US television kept showing the two towers collapsing until children across the nation thought that buildings were falling down everywhere.

It is an unholy alliance, as the media themselves are persuaded by financial and cultural rules. It is a sad fact, but bad news sells newspapers. When people are uncertain and fearful, they seek more information -- and the papers are happy to sell it to them. Culturally, as well, many editors would argue that it would be wrong for them not to print news.

Reaping the seeds of meddling

Many would say that we are reaping the seeds of our own past meddling. Many terrorist groups have their roots in fighting regimes that other governments did not like. The secret services (and sometimes the not so secret ones) found it easier to fight those undesirable governments by covertly encouraging the subversives. My enemy's enemy is my friend, as they say.

In developments that ripple down from World War II resistance and the cold war, the insurgents were taught to wreak havoc with few resources. And then the dog decided to bite the feeding hand: those who fought people in power turned their attention to the more powerful governments. Their minds had been changed, but not so much as to become puppets.

And this is, perhaps, a salutary lesson for those who seek to change minds for immoral reasons. Those who we seek control will, eventually understand what is happening. People who are attracted to cults leave and become their biggest detractors. When we try to control our children's lives too much, they leave, never to return. Battered wives suffer in silence for years and then sometimes kill their cruel husbands. Remember the caveat: What you sow, so also will you reap.

Coda: déja vu

I wrote most of the above this morning, on the train into London. Today is 21st July, 2005, when there was another bombing attempt (two weeks to the day after the first bombings).  Curiously, only the detonators went off and nobody was hurt -- not even the bombers, it seems.

It seems that explosives age and the surprised bombers lived to bomb another day. According to one report, one of the bombers looked rather annoyed when there was only a small bang. Perhaps he felt his first-class ticket to heaven had been cancelled. (A later story, when they had been identified, was that one bomber told a neighbor that not only would he go to heaven, but that there would be 80 virgins awaiting him there. I wonder who told him that. For an impressionable young man, one might understand how it could change his mind.)

So what were they saying this time? The underlying message was 'We can do this any time'. By repeating the pattern (three on underground trains and one on a bus), they were cocking a snoot at the police, showing that, despite increased security, there was nothing that could stop them bombing wherever they chose.

The local effect was also interesting. My officemates seemed more irritated than worried (my family was more concerned, as they had heard only vague news).

The effect on potential tourists will be interesting. One bombing seems like a one-off, but two indicates a continuing threat. And this is no doubt a deliberate part of the message.

Coda to the coda: shoot to kill

The next day, a Brazilian electrician who lived in the block of flats where bombers lived went to the station and then ran away from armed police and leaped onto a train (his visa was just out of date). Guessing he was a bomber, the police shot him dead. The government and police supported the action, as did everyone I spoke to. More minds changed. Police killing of innocent people (albeit in extraordinary circumstances) now has public support. And so the terrorists win again.

And again: Police recovery

Still in July 2005, the police have arrested all four of the would-be second set of bombers in an impressively massive show of detection and force. The pervasiveness of closed-circuit television cameras has proved immensely useful in capturing the movements of the terrorists, as has modern forensic methods and collaboration across police forces (the last bomber was caught in Rome).

Confidence in the police and in London has been also recovered by a massive show of force. Every tube station in central London had police at every entrance. When I arrived at Waterloo on Thursday this week, I stood in one spot and counted 18 police (and that was the ones in uniform). This included 2 in full body armor, helmets and automatic weapons. And I was pleased to see them. And so my mind is changed again.

See also

The need for prediction, Conversion techniques, Fallacies

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