The limits of terror

Well-planned terrorist attacks combine the element of surprise with great symbolism. The September 11 attacks were the supreme example of a terrorism that is based on total surprise and, at the same time, exploits the powerful symbolism of its actions to the full. The destruction of the World Trade Center in New York and the strike against the Pentagon dealt a blow to the heart of the United States and, symbolically, the West. In Bali in 2002, the deaths of 202 people, mainly tourists, in bomb attacks jeopardized the tourist industry and the delicate ethnic balance in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Later that year, an attack on a French supertanker off Yemen pointed out one of the most vulnerable links in the global economy. The suicide attacks on London’s mass transit system in 2003 created a frightening sense of insecurity: If terrorists could strike in the heart of a capital as well-policed as London, they could operate without hindrance anywhere. In all these cases, the terrorists had found their foes’ weaknesses and had struck effectively and mercilessly. By achieving the greatest number of casualties and by exploiting their targets’ symbolic value, they awed the world with their determination and strategic thinking. Especially after the attacks on New York and Washington, everyone was convinced that the world would change. The result, however, does not justify our fears. Granted, much has changed – especially regarding the difficulties citizens face through heightened security measures and the stricter laws and regulations that many countries adopted. The Americans accepted big changes in the way their hitherto exemplary democracy functioned but, in the end, Barack Obama’s election results from the fact that most of them have now voted for hope rather than fear. The new administration is expected to restore many of the principles that were swept aside in the murky «war against terror.» The damage caused by all terrorist attacks is much smaller than the consequences of the greed of the princes of capitalism. The excesses of the free market brought the credit crunch, which has shaken economies across the globe and jeopardizes stability in many societies and in international relations. The great challenge that governments face in the immediate future concerns their ability to secure their people’s well-being in an increasingly difficult environment. In this climate, economic inequalities can create much greater dangers than the terrorism that feeds off messianic delirium (of Osama bin Laden’s type) or national and religious bigotry. The most dangerous kind of terrorism is that which escapes the bonds of the symbolic and has actual consequences in real life. This occurs when the social tensions are already there and there is an absence of institutions capable of absorbing the greatest shocks. The well-planned terror attacks on Mumbai – India’s financial capital – were aimed at grabbing the greatest possible publicity internationally, destabilizing India and worsening its already tense relations with Pakistan. When we learn the terrorists’ identities, we will know whether the destabilization of Pakistan was another of their motives – at a time when Pakistan has shown a willingness to ease the tensions that have resulted in three wars with India since 1947. Now it is up to the leaders of the two countries to work toward solving their problems. Until that time, terrorists will continue to strike and people will die for no reason. But citizens will be forced to ignore terrorism as they go about earning their daily bread. They will get back on the train, just as they did after a series of bomb attacks in Mumbai in July 2006 killed 180 people on the city’s trains.

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