I Reflections on Modern Terrorism By Gerald Holton
II Research Responsibility Is Best Defense Against Biothreats, Experts Say at AAAS, Posted By The Institute for Genome Sciences
I Reflections on Modern Terrorism*
Gerald Holton is Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of History of Science, Emeritus at Harvard University.
3.19.02 (Published in The Reading Room, issue 4, 2002)
by Gerald Holton
Most 20th-century discussions on terrorism missed the point that, in the absence of an act of international will, we passed irreversibly through an historic transition.
Terrorism is a method of coercion of a population or its leadership or both, through fear or traumatization. What usually caught our attention was an act that attempted to impose terror, by individuals or small groups, on other individuals or groups, and through them indirectly on their governments. I will call this Type I terrorism. The record shows that such acts, from the bombing by anarchists around the turn of the 19th century to more recent attacks on embassies, in virtually every case have had three characteristics. They have been carried out with conventional, i.e., paleotechnic means. They have become part of a long and numbing series of such acts (one study reported 2400 attacks by foreign terrorists on the U.S. between 1983 and 1998). But above all, while they usually gained their fundamental aims of attracting worldwide attention for a time, of perhaps scoring a victory over a rival gang, and of satisfying a lust for blood by assassinating innocent people at relatively low risk, they have in most cases been failures—failures with respect to the long-range objective of coercing fundamental government policies. One recalls here the dismissive remark in a letter of September 1870 from Engels to Marx: “Terror is for the most part useless cruelties committed by frightened people to reassure themselves.”
The situation is completely asymmetrical when we turn to Type II terrorism, namely the imposition of terror by governments on individuals or on groups of local or foreign populations. Although less frequent than Type I, such acts have claimed in the 20th century a far larger number of victims. Above all, they largely succeeded in their avowed aim, from Mussolini’s bombing of the Abyssinians and the killing of all men in the town of Lidice in reprisal for the killing of one man, down to the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi in 1972. (There are only a few cases of failure, e.g., the German Blitz raids on England, and the coercive acts of French military groups and colons in Algeria.)
It is my judgment that the asymmetries are being dissolved. There will be a progressive fusion of Types I and II terrorism. It began with the process of governments co-opting and arming terrorist groups for transnational purposes; the legitimization of terrorism as part of so-called “national liberation” actions; and the training, arming, and financing of various networks of international terrorists. The last of these enables the two previously distinct types of terrorist agencies—states with potentially biblical scales of terror, and relatively independent small groups with limited powers of devastation–to collaborate, merge, or act, in secret or in more or less open collusion, in the new, Type III terrorism.
To understand the potential of this form, one must not stop with a prognosis of likely technical means. The new technological capabilities in the present context—e.g., nuclear and other spectacularly destructive physical means, or biological and chemical weapons—form only one part of the context. Neotechnic means can vastly increase the scale of damage, and through television can almost instantly and repeatedly spread the news and imagery of the act; but by themselves they need not coerce a determined people. One should be equally concerned with the other components that are essential to the successful act of terror on a large scale. For whether it is carried out by individuals, a group, a state, or a coalition of these, terror succeeds or fails on a “stage” that has four components, each of which is subject, in our time, to the enlargements of opportunity or scope:
1. The technological capabilities available to the terrorizing group able to take advantage of these.
2. The international-political situation in which the terrorizers and their victims find themselves.
3. The current model of normal or “regular” life taken for granted by the targetted group.
4. The historic memory (including folklore and other social myths) of the affected group.
To see the last two points more clearly than is common, one must realize that the methods of terror of Type II, from the earliest historic period to our own, involved not merely inflicting horrid casualties, but succeeded when they produced a drastic modification in the target group of its traditional perception of society and nature within which human life had previously been thinkable. It is through this modification that the victim is disoriented, robbed of integrity, and made manipulable. That is the chief lesson of one of the primal examples of traumatization, namely, chapter 11 of Exodus: Not until the tenth plague, one that disrupted the whole familial and social fabric of Ancient Egypt, was the level of terror high enough to coerce the pharaoh’s decision. Another example is that of the Mayas, otherwise successful and valiant warriors, who are said to have been put to flight by the very appearance of Spaniards on horseback, who were thus representing a psychologically intolerable fusion of incommensurables.1 The modern terrorists may well try to determine consciously where the most effective place is in the personal and historic memory of their intended victims, in order to insert the crowbar there. Conversely, a group and its leadership that fears victimization by terrorists might well examine both the weak spots in its society that could at least partially be protected, and also what may be the hate-producing elements in the potential attackers’ worldview and grievances that might be ameliorated.
Precisely because this subject is so rarely considered in such discussion, a digression will be useful to elaborate on, and to distinguish between, personal and historic memory. The former, at least on the surface, is characterized by the remnants of specific and individual joys and traumata. On a deeper level, to which long, thin roots penetrate from the surface, there are the universalized aspects that form a subject of modern psychological studies.
Historic memory, partly of factual and partly of mythic events, can be regarded as a subset located within deep personal memory. A good part of its contents is the apprehension that ominous, foreboding, uncanny, magical events may happen, some of which are expressed in creation myths and apocalyptic myths, and in the stories that transform common personal events such as birth, danger, escape, and death—the realm of storytellers about the events in ancient kingdoms, exploits of armies, or great natural catastrophes (such as the eighteenth-century earthquake that devastated Lisbon and so helped change the Western optimism of the century). While these stories and myths may seem ethnocentric in a specific population, at the bottom there are important invariants. The Motive-Index of Folk Literature by Stith Thompson2 contains a classification of narrative elements through an enormous range of cultures and time periods; but it is significant that the antithetical couple, “world calamities” and “establishment of natural order,” is among the very first “mythological motives” listed.
The potential of using this psychological ground as part of a stage for political action has been known for some time. In Réflexions sur la violence (1908), a manual long influential in terrorist movements, Georges Sorel counseled the revolutionaries of his time to take advantage of these “social myths,” as he termed them. He noted that
“…the framing of a future…may be very effective….This happens when the anticipations of the future take the form of those myths, which enclose with them all the strongest inclinations of a people, of a party, or of a class, inclinations which recur to the mind with the insistence of instincts in all the circumstances of life; and which give an aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action by which, more easily than by any other method, man can reform the desires, passions, and mental activity.”3
He argued that it made no sense to discuss how far such a myth can be taken literally in detail as future history: “It is the myth in its entirety which is alone important: its parts are only of interest insofar as they bring out the main idea.” He proceeded to show that this conception can be used both in its positive and its negative sense. That is, not only can a social myth stabilize a social order, but its destruction and replacement by another myth can be, and indeed has to be, the condition for the radical transformation of a society. This, in his view, was the function of “Proletarian violence” and “plainest brutality.” The aim of this violence is the institution of a counter-myth–in the specific case of interest to him, the myth of “the General Strike…the myth in which Socialism is wholly comprised.” His whole essay, far from being a call to violence for its own sake, had the grandiose aim to “confront man with a catastrophe” that would signify “absolute revolution.” While one might well doubt details of Sorel’s conceptions, the method of transformation through a large-scale catastrophe organized for the purpose is, in our technologically more advanced era, an even more powerful conception than it was in Sorel’s time.
Another famous manual for using widespread terror in the service of an ideology is of course Leon Trotzky’s book Terrorism and Communism (University of Michigan Press, 1961), written within two years of the Bolsheviks’ victory in the Russian Revolution. In his chapter titled simply “Terrorism,” he writes with confidence: “The problem of revolution, as of war, consists in breaking the will of the foe, forcing him to capitulate and to accept the conditions of the conqueror” (p.56)….”Are we expected to consider them [the measures] ‘intolerable’?” (p.57)….”As for us, we were never concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle about the ‘sacredness of human life.’” (p.63)
The key role of historic memory in the success of Type II terror acts becomes clear when we consider the particular part of modern historic memory that refers to actual traumatic happenings that disrupted the familiar environment of human life. The chief example that comes to mind is the release over Hiroshima and Nagasaki of artificial, man-made suns that rained down heat, gamma rays, and radioactive fallout—an injection of new, essentially cosmological objects into the ecology of human experience, with such force that it almost immediately led to the end of a brutal war foisted on the U.S.A. Secretary of War Stimson accurately observed to the members of his scientific panel advising on the use of the bomb on 31 May 1945, prior to its first test over Alamogordo, that they should consider the atomic bomb not “as a new weapon merely but as creating a revolutionary change in the relation of man to the universe.”4 More than even most of the scientists present, Stimson seems to have realized early that the weapon was outside the normal frame of causality, not only of the intended victims but also of the victors.
The historic memory contains other examples that share some of the same parameters, even if not the same scale or duration of effect. In some quarters, the impact of the injection in October 1957 of a new, artificial moon, Sputnik, was near-hysteria, the more so as the object had been made in a country thought to be threatening, and (as far as the public was concerned) had been made in secret. These two examples have an important common characteristic. The terrorizing event has greatest power when it happens suddenly, on one day, and can be seen or otherwise known at once by all or a large part of the target population.
Another relevant case was that of the replacement of natural air by a deadly gas, first produced by the Germans in World War I. The Allies were initially terrified, but they soon absorbed the weapon into their own war plans. Thus, by March of 1918 the United States research group had developed a simple and efficient process for the production of the large supplies of mustard gas that had been ordered by the United States military in September 1917.
That case, and the condition of non-use in Western society since, illustrate a maxim that state-controlled terror weapons lead to proliferation, just as do other weapons, but that there may then ensue a balance of terror—that peculiar state in which each side exhibits the behavior of both terrorizer and victim.
The historic consciousness of our time contains also another case that future historians may put on the list of developments that characterized the twentieth century. I refer to the discovery by the civilized world, toward the end of World War II, of the existence of the Nazi camps for genocide—or, more properly, of final proof that bore out the evidence long available to those who cared to know. The process by which these concentration camps were used systematically to destroy specially selected and identified groups of the population under German domination was calculated to serve a triple purpose.
Not only were the camps designed to eliminate people. They also were factories to “harvest” them methodically (from eye glasses and trusses to childrens wear).
But it is often underestimated that a third purpose of the camps was precisely that they would act also as a terror weapon. Certainly, at least the segment of the population that was the target of these camps was sufficiently aware of their existence, and consequently was traumatized by the threat to such an extent that the vast operation in which millions were killed could be carried on with considerable efficiency in terms of supervisory manpower needs. The existence of the Gulag in the Soviet Union was more generally known within that country; the disappearance of millions forced into those camps also had a paralyzing effect on the psyche of most in the population at large—although with splendid exceptions.
The use of systematic state terror in what became the Soviet Union has been authoritatively described by Richard Pipes in his book, The Russian Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990). Chapter 18, “The Red Terror,” traces its early stages to Lenin’s writings, as in an essay of 1908, where he first used the concept of “extermination” of class enemies. Once in power, the Bolshevik dictatorship made terror part of its state policy. Lenin’s Commissar of Justice wrote in 1920: “Terror is a system…a legalized plan of the regime for the purpose of mass intimidation, mass compulsion, mass extermination,” all directed to segments of the state’s own population. Eventually, the Soviet security police were given a free hand to end the lives of millions of citizens that it regarded as “enemies.” Concentration camps, called by that name, had been first ordered to be set up by Trotzky and Lenin in August 1918, as part of the “Red Terror.” By 1923, there were 315 such camps. In the Stalinist U.S.S.R., they grew ever larger and more numerous.
This is not the place to pursue this legacy of that tragic century. But in the absence of any international agreements, incentives, or other forces that would tend to discourage continued development and use of terror of both types, we may expect the tacit taboo on this particular Type II terror weapon to be overcome also. The campaigns of “ethnic cleansing,” e.g., in Serbia and Rwanda, came close to this model in recent years.
The Success of Terror
I have argued that cataclysmic events, the perpetration of enormities, and other precipitous changes in the human condition, stretch personal and historic memory beyond the limits of accommodation within the ordinary elastic range. They make a plastic deformation, leaving the psyche different, distorted, and ready to crystalize experiences around the wound in new ways. When we ask what lessons the historic memory of our time has drawn from these events, one finds that the most prominent response is self-protection on the conscious level. For example, except for passing references, the atomic bomb and the Holocaust are rarely made part of educational curricula. On the contrary, for the masses the chief vehicle for presenting terror situations after the fact has been banalization and exploitation. Examples are such movies and TV productions as Hiroshima Mon Amour, Hogan’s Heroes, The Night Porter, Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, the film Life is Beautiful, and, most recently, videogames using Nazi protagonists in full uniform. The Jewish National Museum in New York City includes in its exhibit of Holocaust art “a model of a concentration camp made of Lego; a “Gift-gas Giftset” of poison gas canisters with Channel, Hermès and Tiffany & Company logos; and a photo of Buchenwald prisoners in their bunks with a superimposed image of the artist holding a Diet Coke can.”
The second lesson that the planned use of calamities as Type II terror weapons has left in historic memory is that on the whole they were successful, and, moreover, that the use of the weapons did not incur counterbalancing, severe psychic costs to the user. There is no reason why future adventures along this line should not be seen “safe” enough by the perpetrators. The effect that the dropping of the first atomic bombs had on the leadership and population of the Western Allies is an illustrative case. In response to the reasonable likelihood that the Germans would preempt them, scientists worked on the design and manufacture of the bomb. But in June 1945, a number of them (James Franck, Eugene Rabinowitch, Glenn T. Seaborg, Leo Szilard, and others) pleaded (in their “A Report to the Secretary of War”) that the bomb should not be first used on a civilian target. One of their chief arguments was that “the military advantages and the saving of American lives achieved by the sudden use of atomic bombs against Japan may be outweighed by the ensuing loss of confidence and by a wave of horror and repulsion sweeping over the rest of the world, and perhaps even dividing public opinion at home.”5
Their advice was of course not heeded, and the explosions had their intended traumatizing effect on the Japanese leadership. None of the expected immediate “loss of confidence” and “wave of horror and repulsion” materialized. Quite the contrary. The New York Times, in an editorial after the bomb was dropped, hailed it as “the magic key to victory [which] has been found in America…. The new bomb…is the crowning demonstration of Allied technical, scientific and material superiority over the enemy.” It also declared in an editorial, “Science and the Bomb,” that the scientists had better shape up and learn from the event, instead of returning to their ivory towers: “A problem was stated. It was solved by teamwork, by planning, by competent direction, and not by a mere desire to satisfy curiosity.”
Since Type II terrorism has been generally successful in its aims, there is no reason to think that non-state terrorists will continue to limit themselves to paleotechnic means and to essentially unsuccessful missions. On the contrary, the same dynamic that escalated the technological sophistication of state terrorism is bound to act also within individual and group terrorism of Type III. Three developments may be expected: one is the attempt by one or more states to disseminate, not directly but through hired gangs, both the technology and also the cultural ground for successful terror, i.e., to secure the marriage of advanced technology and the intent to traumatize through cataclysmic disaster. The second is that large or small gangs, not necessarily or openly associated with states but motivated by a fervent ideology (analogous to the case of the Bolsheviks), will perform that same sinister marriage on their own.
Third, a nation targeted for the new terrorism will not have open to it the conventional response—i.e., a balance of terror against an identifiable Type II threat. Therefore it will have to devise new measures, so as to make terror acts unacceptably costly to probable instigators and their protectors, as well as to initiate policies that might defuse the conditions likely to be animating the potential terrorists.
There is a final point. As Type III terrorists scale up the levels of activity, chances are that some of them may experience technical failures, particularly in their early preparations. Any attempt to produce damage on a very large scale requires a certain amount of technical mastery that may not be easy to transmit locally to what previously would have been merely a band of Type I terrorists. The distance in competence between the supplier of a new weapon on the one hand and the operator on the other hand can be very large, even in the cases where such weapons are used by advanced states in warfare.6
However, even “failures” of weapons (nuclear, chemical, or biological) on the scale of Type II agents but in the hands of Type III agents could result in enormous deleterious effects, devastating to life in unintended areas. It may well be that precisely such a catastrophic “failure” could finally mark the entry of a new discontinuity in world history.
Gerald Holton is Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of History of Science, Emeritus at Harvard University. (Jefferson Laboratory, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138.)
Biosecurity Plenary Session: AAAS 2011 General Meeting
Research Responsibility Is Best Defense Against Biothreats, Experts Say at AAAS
Ten years after the anthrax attacks that killed five Americans, researchers say a “culture of responsibility” among scientists may be the most effective way to prevent a future biological attack.
Scientists welcome their collaborations with the federal government to ensure lab safety, and they say they have made strides in screening the lab workers who handle the most deadly bacteria and viruses. But a panel of prominent researchers at the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting said there is also a danger that burdensome regulations could discourage promising young scientists from working with these biological agents.
“The best and the brightest that you want have a lot of other opportunities,” said Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and infectious Diseases. “You don’t want to give them too much of a reason to walk away from you.”
The meeting’s plenary discussion on biosecurity came less than a week after the National Research Council released a long-awaited report evaluating the science behind the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s analyses in the 2001 anthrax attacks. The report concluded that the FBI’s analysis could not conclusively link anthrax spores from the lab flask of U.S. Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins, the FBI’s main suspect in the attacks before suicide in 2008, to the spores used in 2001.
In a video prepared for the plenary discussion, U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) praised the National Research Council’s review of the FBI science, but said “a lot of questions are still unanswered.”
Holt, the recipient of the 2010 AAAS Philip Hauge Abelson Award, introduced a bill on 15 February to probe the attacks further. Modeled on the work of the 9/11 Commission, Holt said, the Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act would examine the federal government’s response to the anthrax mailings and make recommendations to prepare for future biological strikes.
The plenary panelists, along with moderator Jeanne Guillemin of the MIT Security Studies Program, agreed that the anthrax investigation—the science part, at least—would unfold much differently now than a decade ago. For instance, researchers then had only 40 pathogen genomes to compare to the anthrax strain, unlike the thousands of genomes available today. Current sequencing technology makes it possible to analyze a bacterial genome in hours or days, compared to the months it took in 2001.
There has also been a construction boom in biocontainment labs, said Claire Fraser-Liggett, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences; 14,000 people now work in more than 1300 of these labs across the country. The labs hold about 82 bacteria and viruses that are listed as select agents—organisms considered potentially dangerous to human health.
Fraser-Liggett’s lab worked on the samples of anthrax from the 2001 attacks, and she has been a member of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity since it was formed in 2004. In her work with the advisory board, she was surprised to find that there was little evidence showing whether psychological evaluations, medical exams, and similar tests are useful in screening lab workers.
The advisory board’s conversations with scientists, Fraser-Liggett said, show that “engaged leadership at the institutional level and at the laboratory level” is the most effective way to prevent a lab worker from making a careless mistake or deliberately releasing a dangerous pathogen.
“The bottom line,” Fauci agreed, “is always the development of a culture of responsibility by the scientists involved.”
The threats posed by naturally emerging pathogens such as HIV or the SARS virus, or re-emerging pathogens such as drug-resistant staph infections or malaria, “have a much greater chance of impacting society” than deliberately released pathogens, Fauci said.
The good news, he noted, is that broad investments in vaccines, medicines, and prevention programs could be used equally against natural and deliberate disease outbreaks.
Scientists have been working safely with harmful bacteria and viruses for nearly 100 years, and theft, loss, and release of these pathogens has been “exceedingly rare,” said Rita Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“We have had an extraordinary record of safe research and productive items from research,” she said, “and we need to use our common sense as well as our rigor in this 21st century to address pathogens and the potential hazards they pose to the national security.”
Becky Ham, AAAS