Terror Made Easy


One of the most popular destinations on the Web right now is a blog entry that features two pictures. One is a photograph of Abdullah Al Muhajir, the man recently accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" on American soil. The other is a sketch of John Doe #2, the mysterious figure who many believe was an accomplice in the Oklahoma City bombing. Some people doubt that there was a well-developed dirty-bomb plot, and some people doubt that John Doe #2 even exists. Placed side by side, though, the faces do look like one of those separated-at-birth gags.

The blog includes a place for reader comments. The most compelling: "This is very interesting. Of course, lots of people look like this."

Lots indeed. There are three levels to the present terrorist threat. The first consists of the conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks and their potential sequels. The fight against it is supported by virtually everyone, in concept if not in all the particulars. The second level is the much larger world of Islamists with a beef against America. The response to those angry foreigners has been divided between those who would make the U.S. more imperial, sending troops to every restless corner of the Muslim world, and those who would make the U.S. less imperial, on the grounds that it's better not to make enemies than to attempt to corral them all. It is entirely possible to be hawkish when it comes to the first level and dovish when it comes to the second, just as one can believe it possible to destroy a particular drug cartel without also thinking the larger flow of drugs can be stopped.

And then there's the third level: not a specific faction of terrorists, but the stark possibility of terror. The most unnerving talk around the Al Muhajir case involves the alleged ease with which anyone can make a dirty bomb (presumably so called because, unlike other bombs, it leaves a mess). Whether or not you buy the idea that it's a cakewalk to construct a radioactive weapon, the notion that it might be a simple task rings true for a lot of Americans. After all, just last year a handful of thugs managed to murder 3,000 people at once with a few boxcutters. Since then, destruction on a much smaller scale has been wrought not just with rare strains of anthrax, but with a Cessna and some easy-to-build pipe bombs. Interestingly, none of the latter perpetrators are tied to Al Qaeda.

In the weeks after September 11, commentators dreamed up dozens of other ways that terrorists might kill Americans, from deliberately tainted meat to carefully placed truck bomb. In Israel, meanwhile, suicide bombers have reminded us the damage that can be done with nails. In a digital society where ones and zeroes can be rearranged to represent almost anything, the bits that make up the concrete world can similarly be refashioned into weapons, even weapons of mass destruction.

You can't fight this threat with the standard hawkish strategy. You can't fight it with the standard dovish strategy either. There's no single source to target, no single grievance to mollify. You can only try to make your society as resilient as possible, to minimize the damage attackers can do and maximize the opportunities for other citizens to stop them.

Among other things, that requires a devolution of power. But this brand of terrorism is itself an example of devolved power: the power of terrible destruction, once monopolized by the nation-state, now in the grasp of small groups. If there's a solution to that paradox, it's been as elusive as John Doe #2.