TCS Daily

Why Terror Fails

By James K. Glassman - October 25, 2001 12:00 AM

POINT CLEAR, Ala., Oct. 25 - Off the plane on a sultry New Orleans night, I rented a car and drove the 200 miles east to Mobile Bay. This was the same trip that the hero of one of my favorite novels, Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer," takes - though he stopped in Biloxi. Percy's other great novel, "Love in the Ruins," an end-of-the-world tale written in 1971, bears re-examination today.

On the first page, the protagonist muses as radiation covers the earth: "Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A. and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coaster cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back into history with its ordinary catastrophes, carries us out and up toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A., then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward."

It is a frightening thought, and it has to be entertained, somewhere in the recesses of the brain. But on the plane down from Washington, I read something else - a wonderful piece in the Atlantic by the editor, Michael Kelly. He discusses why terrorism never achieves its objectives and why it won't this time either.

Terror tries to break the will of the public, so they will surrender principle to save themselves. But, writes Kelly, "Will doesn't collapse as easily as that, it turns out.... The idea behind the philosophy of terror is that inflicting great and random pain on innocent people will shatter the collective illusion about the natural order of things - God's in his heaven, and all that - and that the shattered people will consequently suffer a collective emotional implosion. But the fact that bad things happen to innocent people IS the natural order of things, and we all know this....

"The real human response to the horrors of life is to put them out of the mind - by focusing on the glories or the duties of life. For this reason terror campaigns provide their own antidote. They provide the people who are supposed to be terrorized with a powerful new duty - to save themselves, to destroy those who destroy them."

And I would add something else: to re-dedicate their lives to family, spirituality, country; to become serious; to remember the fragility of mortality and the beauty of what we have here on earth, including the ancient live oaks, draped with Spanish moss outside my window here on Mobile Bay.

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