Two thousand years ago, during China’s Han dynasty, enigmatic warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu defined the only types of battle-space charge: the unorthodox surprise attack, and the orthodox direct attack. Tzu’s The Art of War is among the very few ancient books still relevant today. Possessed of ice-and-stars clarity, it’s difficult to accept such poetic precision was hitched to the machinations of combat.
So long ago, terrorism as we unfortunately know it likely did not exist. There was insanity—organic and otherwise—resulting in mass murder, but nothing on today’s scale of organized sociopathy. Civilization as such, limited to agriculture and nature-based religion, wasn’t churning with the over-complexity and neuroses necessary to breed malignant ideologies.
Human sacrifice, though, was as common then as now. The difference—truly massive—is one of intentionality.
Beyond the obvious goal of spreading terror and unbalancing the day-to-day lives of targeted populations, the suicide strategy lacks what translator Thomas Cleary cites as “Real ruthlessness, the coldness of complete objectivity, [which] always includes oneself in its cutting assessment of the real situation . . . [and] on the ultimate meaninglessness of the greed and possessiveness that underlie aggression.”
Put simply, it’s not enough to argue that Middle Eastern terror networks have an apparently unlimited reserve of devotees not only willing to die, but determined to in a way completely incomprehensible to the Western sensibility. Although frequently covered in articles and essays, the “religion problem” remains; all blame is tossed in that direction. Soldiers at war expect to be confronted with catastrophic horror, blood, and inhuman brutality—but the so-called average citizen (especially in North America, the UK, Australia/NZ, and much of Europe) does not. They occupy what might be called an expectation gap, akin to a dark alley or vast forest avoided by most people. Terrorism thrives in this gap; a rift between knowledge and dread. All bad actors share a secret dating back as far as Sun Tzu: “When power and resources are exhausted, then the homeland is drained.”
Ask any war veteran which emotion drains the most energy, and you won’t be surprised when he or she says “fear” and/or “chronic anxiety.”
Suicide bombings evoke exactly what they’re designed to, and represent ultimate terror. How do survivors manage under what must be crushing after-effects and looming uncertainty in open spaces? These PTSD-type afflictions are what terrorists strive to produce, knowing that further horrors (panic attacks, depression, sudden rage) almost certainly await to ruin lives and destabilize economies dependent upon un-traumatized labor.
The Department of Defense characterizes “asymmetrical” warfare (terrorism) as perhaps the most serious threat to global American soldiers. Not even cutting-edge weapons and armor (body and otherwise) can guarantee protection against something as low-tech as a suicide vest or improvised explosive device—commonly referred to as an IED.
Despite these chilling facts, the outlook is not entirely grim, if unsettling.
Aided by ever-sophisticated, miniaturized technology and enhanced security measures, intelligence operations have halted an undisclosed number of terrorist schemes. While suicide bombings have decreased, “successful” attacks are claiming higher death tolls, owing perhaps to improved tactical training and not a little desperation. Presently, security services worldwide have yet to design a completely effective countermeasure against this particularly horrific action.
Though unpleasant in the extreme, we must ask whether enemy agents could conceivably stage suicide bombings in order to assess nothing beyond official response. Who shows up? How long does it take them? A lone spy can gather useful—potentially devastating—intelligence simply by observation. From such reportage future destruction can be planned.
As noted in Eugene Thacker’s Infinite Resignation, most non-terroristic suicides are carried out not because a person wants to die, but because—emotionally, existentially—they’re already dead. So why go to all the bother? Ironically, however, without despair there can be no hope. What must be found is easy to describe, but starkly difficult even to imagine: A way to convince potential bombers that their devotion is futile.
Existing security measures, of course, can be improved. As with so many other problems haunting high-seriousness ventures and campaigns, the chain can be only as strong as its weakest link: the human.