Today's date:
Summer 1995

Third Wave Terrorism

Just as the atomic age burst into history at Hiroshima 50 years ago, so too the first use of mass destruction weapons by a small, apocalyptic religious sect in Tokyo marks the opening of a bleak new age.

No sooner were non-proliferation policies fairly succeeding in stemming the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to rogue states than such weapons have begun falling into the hands of rogue groups beyond the reach of the deterrence strategies, sanctions and treaties of the nation-state era.

Even to the usually optimistic futurist Alvin Toffler, the satin gas attack in a Tokyo subway by the Aum Supreme Truth sect signaled a somber turn of the times. For Toffler, the act marked the ultimate devolution of power in the information age: the demassification of mass destruction weapons. The broad "third wave" dispersion of power and information, including lethal knowledge, has at last undermined the founding basis of the state by depriving it of its monopoly over mass violence.

While once a nuclear state required huge, secret and expensive laboratories somewhere deep in a desert, today the mercenary "gray matter" of unemployed post-Cold War scientists can migrate by e-mail to whomever is in the market. A large pool of graduatelevel knowledge in chemistry and biology exists around the planet, easily tappable if the price and circumstances are right.

What makes the situation scary is not just the volatile mix of old fanaticisms and modern weapons, as Shimon Peres worries, but worse: the mix of lethal knowledge with what Hans Magnus Enzensberger calls "molecular civil war," the peculiar form of nihilistic violence that arises from the postmodern fragmentation of societies.

That fragmentation spits out radically angry people at the political margins as well as gangs and skinheads so indifferent to their own fate that they are not compelled to engage in the kind of selfpreserving rationality that restrained those states that possessed weapons of mass destruction during the Cold War.

Just imagine a gangbanger with an anthrax bomb and you get the picture. And we can be sure that the Tokyo precedent did not escape the notice of paranoid loners out there among the lurking class, like the neoLuddite Unabomber, or of any of the depraved bands of fanatics like Hezbollah.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to imagine the threat of third wave terrorism than to figure out what to do about it. Advanced societies are particularly vulnerable with their concentrated populations, integrated electrical grids, common water supplies, skyscrapers, jumbo jets and subways. As the potential perpetrators of mass violence proliferate along with available lethal knowledge and the means of its dissemination on the Internet, the more difficult it will be to control. The more genies there are out and about, the more difficult it will be to put them all back in their bottles.

No doubt anti-terrorist hawks will arise in this new battle, and they may not be wrong in the short term despite the obvious danger to civil liberties. Against the tide of the times, they will call for a stronger state that can control information deemed potentially lethal; they will call for a more intrusive surveillance of suspect people as well as chemicals, biological cultures, plutonium, equipment and other components of mass destruction weapons. To defend the "ordered liberty" of free societies they may even be willing to accept arrangements akin to the UN monitoring of a chastised and punished Iraq, where all materials and equipment that could have a dual use are tagged and traced, and where suspect facilities are photographed night and day by U2 spyplanes or orbiting satellites.

Though such stringent measures could well justify the paranoia of Big Brother that so enrages the militiaminded types they are aimed to suppress, it would be foolish to reject such a course out of hand because, with mass destruction weapons, it will take only one incident to wreak horror and catastrophe.

For the long term, the advice offered by German authorities who battled the Red Army Faction in the 1970s is well worth heeding. They came to understand that while the stern police-state approach that caused so much angst among civil libertarians was necessary, it was not enough. In the end, for them, only the political effort to integrate the marginal and avoid social exclusion would bring security; only removing injustice and the causes of alienation stood a good chance of draining the most dangerous wellsprings of terrorism.

One must wonder, though, whether such an approach is anything more than wishful thinking in today's tightly connected, yet dis-integrating world. Clashing civilizations, crumbling inner cities abandoned to drug gangs and the poor, a smug indifference to the vast global outerclass who can't find a niche in the world market - all provide fertile soil on a planetary scale for violent disaffection.

Facing these conditions, a dark irony is easier to see than a safe path ahead. It may be the likes of the anticomputer terrorist Unabomber who drives us sooner rather than later toward a new and forbidding social model: a police state on the streets with freedom confined to virtual reality.

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