Terrorism’s Targets: Infrastructure or Psychology?

Matt Yglesias bills yesterday’s attempted terrorist attack as an “a pretty unserious plot,” unlikely, even if successful, to cause any long-term damage:

Ultimately, it does no favors to anyone to blow this sort of thing out of proportion. The United States could not, of course, be “devastated” by anything resembling this scheme. We ought to be clear on that fact. We want to send the message around the world that this sort of vile attempt to slaughter innocent people is not, at the end of the day, anything resembling a serious challenge to American power.

While he’s surely right that isolated attacks on single airliners will never present, as he says, “a serious challenge to American power,” this sort of analysis ignores history, and mistakes the number of ways in which a nation can be affected by her enemies. September 11th was not, of its own accord, truly devastating. Our greatest metropolis lost its tallest building, the Pentagon lost 1/5th of its circumference, and 3,000 people lost their lives. Tragic, yes, but no threat to America’s existence. Still, the events plunged the nation into a panic, threatened a travel-based economy, prompted sweeping legal changes, and generally shattered our notions of invulnerability. Terrorism doesn’t depend upon a loss of infrastructure, or a loss of lives, for its effect. The simple fact of a successful attack, regardless of its scope, can profoundly alter the world.

Consider the sack of Rome in 410 C.E. True, Rome lost much of her infrastructure and the spoils of a millennium, but the government was under no threat (the Western Empire’s capital had already moved to Ravenna), and the invading Visigoths departed immediately. But the event sent shockwaves throughout the modern world. Rome was not invincible.

It’s good not to live in fear of our enemies. But we should appreciate what they’re capable of, the better to prevent them from altering our way of life, should individual attacks prove successful. Terrorists can strike individual targets, and they can kill, but they can’t destroy our nation, and they can’t break our spirit, unless we let them. To prevent that result, we should steel ourselves against fear, but be aware of its potency.


One comment

  1. Here’s the thing, though – why haven’t there been more terrorist attacks in the U.S.? Or even attempts? Mostly what we hear about sounds incompetent – the plan to blow up Newark’s fuel distribution that was deemed unlikely to have even worked, the guy last week who only managed to light his legs on fire, the Glasgow airport car-bombers who only managed light their car on fire.

    That doesn’t seem like the work a powerful, coordinated organization that’s driven to truly inflict damage and fear on the Western world and that has the means to do so. The September 11 attacks seem more like a fluke than a sign of attacks to come.

    Why aren’t they testing our defenses? Although the Glasgow airport terminal bombing failed to do significant damage, airport terminals are generally still vulnerable to a properly executed car-bomb, and yet additional attempts have not been made. It’s undisputed that terrorists would love to disrupt our infrastructure and strike fear in our hearts. But nothing happens. It’s not that I expect our airports to be blown up; it’s that I would at least expect there to be credible attempts that are foiled, on a more frequent basis than never.

    The answer then, surely, is that the terrorists lack the means to carry out such attacks. So why the fuck do I have to take off my shoes and put tiny bottles of shampoo in plastic baggies?

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