TCS Daily

Inviting the Vampire

By Lee Harris - March 19, 2004 12:00 AM

According to legend, it is impossible for a vampire to enter your house unless you have invited him in. Last Sunday, the Spanish people invited a vampire to enter their house, and the question that now looms before them -- and the rest of Europe as well -- is how to get him back out.

The vampire is terror -- but not just the old homespun terrorism of the European past, but the radically new form of terror that came to the world's attention on 9/11, namely catastrophic terror.

Once upon a time, back in the nineteenth century, terrorism was used to assassinate harmless members of royal families, which meant that unless you were close to the throne, you had nothing to worry about. During the late 1950's, small scale terror attacks were used both in Algeria and in metropolitan France, first of the Algerian Muslims to achieve independence from France, and then by the Algerian Europeans -- the so call pied noirs -- in order to prevent independence.

Here, for the first time, the threat of terror was felt at the personal level by the average guy. Yet as Alistair Horne writes in his history of the Algerian revolution, A Savage War of Peace, the terrorist bombs were designed more to shock and frighten the general public rather than to kill or maim them on a large scale. Two or three people might die in an explosion, but not two thousand or even two hundred.

Yet even these small scale terror attacks were sufficient to divide France into two bitterly opposed factions and to bring an end to the Fourth Republic -- a fact that should wake us up to the vastly greater potential for political de-stabilization posed by the systematic use of catastrophic terror.

Catastrophic terror, unlike ordinary terror, it is not intended to take a few token lives; it is deliberately designed to take so many lives at once that it induces an immediate visceral fear in the entire community that they too are under attack. This effect was clear in the days immediately after 9/11. Back then everything spooked us; and people, hearing the backfire of a truck, jumped out of their skin. At that point it was conceivable that "they" could be anywhere, and that another catastrophic event was right around the corner.

Looking back on 9/11 in light of the strike on Madrid, we are struck by two things. First, our initial phase of collective jitteriness immediately after 9/11, and second, the failure of Al Qaeda to exploit this jitteriness in order to influence or undermine our political system. As far as the date of the attack was concerned, 9/11 might have been pulled out of a hat.

The same thing cannot be said of the terror strike in Madrid. The explosions on Thursday seemed deliberately designed to echo in the minds of the voters the following Sunday -- to echo in their minds and to influence their vote.

If this is the case, then it may well mean that the date of future terror strikes will no longer be drawn out of a hat, but rather will be selected with an eye to maximizing the damage not to people or buildings, but to the political system of the country under attack -- and how better to achieve this end than to plan catastrophic terror events for the eve of national elections, or, even worse, for the morning of one?

If the small scale terror of the Algerian revolutionaries can bring down a republic, one can only begin to imagine the political havoc that the technique of catastrophic terror could achieve if those ruthless enough to exploit it were also cunning enough use it in order to discredit and subvert the very nature of the democratic process. What, after all, is the value of a democracy if terrorists can influence the outcome of elections through acts of mass violence? Who will be willing to vote for a party that has made a point of standing up to terrorism, if the price of their vote will be the brutal murder of hundred or thousands of their fellow citizens -- or even themselves?

What this vampire will do next is anybody's guess. But one thing is certain. It is easy to get a vampire to cross the threshold; but getting him to leave once he has made himself at home -- that is a good deal trickier.

Lee Harris recently wrote for TCS about "Puppet States." His book, Civilization and Its Enemies, was just released by Free Press.


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