Are you ready for the new terrorism? An American intelligence official, who chose to remain nameless, has boasted that with $1 billion and 20 capable hackers he could shut down America. America? Shut down America? Could a postmodern terrorist do it then? Writing in the lead article of the new Foreign Affairs entitled "Postmodern Terrorism," Walter Laqueur finds the claim utterly reasonable.
Teenage hackers have penetrated highly secret systems in every field, he points out. And why assassinate a politician or indiscriminately kill a few dozen people when an attack on electronic switching would produce far larger and more lasting results? If the new terrorism directs its energy toward information warfare, its destructive power will be exponentially greater than it has ever wielded in the past. Of 100 attempts at superviolence made by this or other new techniques, predicts Mr. Laqueur, 99 would fail. But if even a single one is successful it could claim more victims, do more material damage, and unleash far greater panic "then anything the world has yet experienced." So get ready.
Up to now much of the modern terrorism that has caught the public's fancy has been penny ante stuff, the sort described on the front page of the New York Times under the headline: "Terrorism Now Going Homespun As Bombings in the U.S. Spread." Pipe bombs stashed in barbecues, transported by bicycle: this form of domestic terrorism is unquestionably rising, bombings and attempted bombings almost tripling in the last decade.
Some are motivated by grievances, commonly against the IRS, but a great many of these incidents might be called "recreational bombing." Seemingly ordinary people, typically lower middle class, learn how to make a pipe bomb through the Internet. Then, having made their fun bomb, they get the urge to blow something up. In a bombing, says an official of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, you don't have to face your victim. It's the coward's way.
But historically terrorists have not been cowardly at all. The notion that the "suicide bomber" is a modern novelty is quite false. Willingness to die with the victims, in fact, has traditionally brought a dark glamour to terrorism. In the past terrorist groups have almost always contained strong fanatical elements, often religious, for only total certainty of belief justifies the taking of human lives.
With full-scale wars of aggression having become so expensive and risky these days, state-sponsored terrorism is flourishing, replacing, thinks Mr. Laqueur, the great wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries. At the other end of the scale, we have dangerous terrorists working alone or in very small groups, and these are both more difficult to detect and generally more fanatic.
As humankind approaches the end of the second millennium of the Christian era, apocalyptic movements are also on the rise again. For reasons …