REFLECTIONS ON MODERN TERRORISM By Gerald Holton [2.1.02]
There has been an historic transition in which Type I terrorism and Type II terrorism are being combined. Type I terrorism consists of acts by individuals or small groups that aim to impose terror on other individuals and groups, and through them indirectly on their governments. Type II terrorism is the imposition by a government on groups of local or foreign populations. The new type of terrorism Type III is carried out by a substantially larger group of individuals, is aimed directly at a national population, and has all the components for success. The article deals with how this new terrorism, at very little psychic cost on the perpetrators, disrupts personal and historic memory through large-scale catastrophe organized for that purpose. Type III terrorism is made easier by the ready availability of high-level technology. Target nations will not have open to them the conventional responses, and will have to devise new, preventive measures.
GERALD HOLTON is Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University. He obtained his Ph.D. at Harvard as a student of P. W. Bridgman. His chief interests are in the history and philosophy of science, in the physics of matter at high pressure, and in the study of career paths of young scientists.
Among his recent books are Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought ; Science and Anti-Science; Einstein, History, and Other Passions; The Advancement of Science, and its Burdens; Scientific Imagination; two books with Gerhard Sonnert: Gender Differences in Science Careers: The Project Access Study, and Who Succeeds in Science? The Gender Dimension; Physics, The Human Adventure: From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond (with S.G.Brush).
Professor Holton is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Life Honorary Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences, and Fellow of several Learned Societies in Europe. Founding editor of the quarterly journal Daedalus,and founder of Science, Society, & Human Values, he is also on the editorial committee of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (Princeton University Press). Among the honors he has received are the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society, and the selection by the National Endowment for the Humanities as the Jefferson Lecturer.
REFLECTIONS ON MODERN TERRORISM* By Gerald Holton
Terrorism is a method of coercion of a population or its leadership or both, through fear or traumatization. What usually has caught our attention was an act that attempts to impose terror, by individuals or small groups, on other individuals or groups, and through them indirectly on their governments. I will call this Type I terrorism. The record shows that such acts, from the bombing of buildings to skyjacking, in virtually every case have had three characteristics. They have been carried out with conventional, i.e., paleotechnic means. They become part of a long and numbing series of such acts (one study reported 2400 attacks by foreign terrorists on the U.S. between 1983 and 1998). But above all, while they usually gain their fundamental aims of attracting worldwide attention for a time, of perhaps scoring a victory over a rival gang, and of satisfying a lust for blood by assassinating innocent people at relatively low risk, they have in most cases been failures failures with respect to the long-range objective of coercing fundamental government policies. One recalls here the dismissive remark in a letter of September 1870 from F. Engels to K. Marx: "Terror is for the most part useless cruelties committed by frightened people to reassure themselves." The situation is completely asymmetrical when we turn to Type II terrorism, namely the imposition of terror by governments on individuals or on groups of local or foreign populations. Although less frequent than Type I, such acts have claimed in the 20th century a far larger number of victims. Above all, they have largely succeeded in their avowed aim, from Mussolini's bombing of the Abyssinians and the killing of all men in the town of Lidice in reprisal for the killing of one man, down to the "Christmas bombing" of Hanoi in 1972. (There are only a few cases of failure, e.g., the German Blitz raids on England, and the coercive acts of French military groups and colons in Algeria.)
It is my judgment that the asymmetries are now being dissolved. There will be a progressive fusion of Types I and II terrorism that began with the process of governments co-opting and arming terrorist groups for transnational purposes; the legitimization of terrorism as part of so-called "national liberation" actions; and, most ominously, the training, arming, and financing by various countries of networks of international terrorists. The last of these enables the two previously distinct types of terrorist agencies states with potentially biblical scales of terror, and relatively independent small groups with limited powers of devastation--to collaborate, merge, or act, in secret or in more or less open collusion, in the new, Type III terrorism.
To understand the potential of this form, one must not stop with a prognosis of likely technical means. The new technological capabilities in the present context e.g., nuclear and other spectacularly destructive physical means, or biological and chemical (binary) weapons form only one part of the context. Neotechnic means can vastly increase the scale of damage, and through television can almost instantly and repeatedly spread the news and imagery of the act; but by themselves they need not coerce a determined people. One should be equally concerned with the other components that are essential to the successful act of terror. For whether it is carried out by individuals, a group, a state, or a coalition of these, terror succeeds or fails on a "stage" that has four components, each of which is subject, in our time, to the enlargements of opportunity or scope:
To see this point clearly, one must realize that the methods of terror of Type II, from the earliest historic period to our own, involved not merely inflicting horrid casualties, but succeeded when they produced a drastic modification of the traditional perception of society and nature within which human life had previously been thinkable. It is through this modification that the victim is disoriented, robbed of integrity, and made manipulable. That is the chief lesson of one of the primal examples of traumatization, namely, chapter 11 of Exodus: Not until the tenth plague, one that disrupted the whole familial and social fabric of Ancient Egypt, was the level of terror high enough to coerce the pharaoh's decision. Another example is that of the Mayas, otherwise successful and valiant warriors, who are said to have been put to flight by the very appearance of Spaniards on horseback, who were thus representing a psychologically intolerable fusion of incommensurables.1 The modern terrorist may well try to determine consciously where the most effective place is in the personal and historic memory of his or her intended victims, in order to insert the crowbar there. Conversely, a group and its leadership that fears victimization by terrorists might examine both the weak spots in its society that could at least partially be protected, and also what may be the hate-producing elements in the potential attackers' worldview and grievances that might be ameliorated.
Precisely because this subject is so rarely considered in such discussion, a digression will be useful to elaborate on, and to distinguish between, personal and historic memory. The former, at least on the surface, is characterized by the remnants of specific and individual joys and traumata. On a deeper level, to which long, thin roots penetrate from the surface, there are the universalized aspects that form the subject of the search for lawfulness in modern psychological studies.
memory, partly of factual and partly of mythic events, can be
regarded as a subset located within deep personal memory. A good part of its contents are the possibilities of moving,
ominous, foreboding, uncanny, magical happenings that are expressed
in creation myths and apocalyptic myths, and in the stories that
transform common personal events such as birth, danger, escape,
and death the realm of storytellers about the events in
ancient kingdoms, exploits of armies and leaders, or great natural
catastrophes (such as the eighteenth-century earthquake that devastated
Lisbon and so helped change the Western optimism of the century). While these stories and myths may seem
ethnocentric in a specific population, there are important invariants
here too. Thus, the
Motive-Index of Folk Literature
by Stith Thompson2 contains a classification of narrative
elements through an enormous range of cultures and time periods;
but it is significant that the antithetical couple, "world
calamities" and "establishment of natural order,"
is among the very first "mythological motives" listed.
"...the framing of a future...may be very effective....This happens when the anticipations of the future take the form of those myths, which enclose with them all the strongest inclinations of a people, of a party, or of a class, inclinations which recur to the mind with the insistence of instincts in all the circumstances of life; and which give an aspect of complete reality to the hopes of immediate action by which, more easily than by any other method, man can reform the desires, passions, and mental activity."3
argued that it made no sense to discuss how far such a myth can
be taken literally in detail as future history:
"It is the myth in its entirety which is alone important:
its parts are only of interest insofar as they bring out the main
idea." He proceeded to show that this conception
can be used both in its positive and its negative sense. That is, not only can a social myth stabilize
a social order, but its destruction and replacement by another
myth can be, and indeed has to be, the condition for the radical
transformation of a society.
This, in his view, was the function of "Proletarian
violence" and "plainest brutality."
The aim of this violence is the institution of a counter-myth,
in the specific case of interest to him, the myth of "the
General Strike...the myth in which Socialism is wholly comprised."
His whole essay, far from a call to violence for its own
sake, had the grandiose aim to "confront man with a catastrophe"
that would signify "absolute revolution."
While one might well doubt the details of Sorel's conceptions,
the method of transformation through a large-scale catastrophe
organized for the purpose is in our technologically more advanced era an even
more powerful conception than it was in Sorel's time.
famous manual for using widespread terror in the service of an
ideology is of course Leon Trotzky's book Terrorism and Communism (University of Michigan Press, 1961), written within
two years of the Bolsheviks' victory in the Russian Revolution. Thus, in his chapter titled simply "Terrorism,"
he writes with confidence passages such as these: "The problem of revolution, as of
war, consists in breaking the will of the foe, forcing him to
capitulate and to accept the conditions of the conqueror"
(p.56)...."Are we expected to consider them [the measures]
'intolerable'?" (p.57)...."As for us, we were never
concerned with the Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle
about the 'sacredness of human life.'" (p.63)
key role of historic memory in the success of Type II terror acts
becomes immediately clear when we consider the particular part
of modern historic memory that refers to actual traumatic happenings
which disrupted the familiar environment of human life.
The chief example that comes to mind is of course the release
over Hiroshima and Nagasaki of artificial, man-made suns that
rained down heat, gamma rays, and radioactive fallout an
injection of a new, essentially cosmological object into the ecology
of human experience. Secretary of War Stimson
accurately observed to the members of his scientific panel advising
on the use of the bomb on 31 May 1945, prior to its first test
over Alamogordo, that they should consider the atomic bomb not
"as a new weapon merely but as creating a revolutionary change
in the relation of man to the universe."4 More than even most of the scientists present, Stimson seems
to have realized early that the weapon was outside the normal
frame of causality, not only of the intended victims but also
of the victors.
use of systematic state terror in what became the Soviet Union
has been most authoritatively described by Richard Pipes in his
book, The Russian Revolution
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1990). Chapter 18, "The Red Terror,"
traces its early stages to Lenin's writings, as in an essay of
1908, where he first used the concept of "extermination"
of class enemies. Once in power, the Bolshevik dictatorship
made terror part of its state policy. Lenin's Commissar of Justice wrote in 1920: "Terror is a system...a legalized plan of the regime for the purpose of
mass intimidation, mass compulsion, mass extermination,"
all directed to segments of the state's own population.
Eventually, the Soviet security police were given a free
hand to end the lives of millions of citizens that it regarded
as "enemies." Concentration camps, called by that name,
had been first ordered to be set up by Trotzky and Lenin in August
1918, as part of the "Red Terror."
By 1923, there were 315 such camps. In the Stalinist U.S.S.R., they grew ever larger and more numerous.
Success of Terror
professors who are opposed to organizing, planning and directing
research after the manner of industrial laboratories because in
their opinion fundamental research is based on 'curiosity' and
because great scientific minds must be left to themselves have
something to think about. A most important piece of research was conducted on behalf
of the Army by precisely the means adopted in industrial laboratories. And the result? An invention is given to the world in
three years which it would have taken perhaps half a century to
develop if we had to rely on prima donna research scientists to
work alone. The internal logical necessities of atomic
physics and the war led to the bomb. A problem was stated.
It was solved by teamwork, by planning, by competent direction,
and not by a mere desire to satisfy curiosity."
Indeed, the only objection to the use of the new weapon that found its way to the front of The New York Times in the first days after its use was a story under the heading "Vatican Deplores Use of Atom Bomb. Official Press Office Says the Weapon Has Created an Unfavorable Impression."8
The New York Times went on to reprint part of the Vatican's Osservatore Romano editorial that deplored the development of the atomic bomb by reminding its readers about a story concerning Leonardo da Vinci: "He planned a submarine, but he feared that man would not apply it to progress, namely to the constructive uses of civilization, but to its ruin. He destroyed that possible instrument of destruction." The accusing finger was clearly pointing at the scientists involved and to this day, it is generally they who are singled out when the popular mind tries to assess responsibilities in this case.9
late November 1945, an opinion poll showed that only 5 percent
of the public was opposed to the combat use of the atomic bomb. Harry Truman, who made the decision to use it, shared with
the electorate the opinion that the bomb was a legitimate weapon.
As Truman wrote to a clergyman shortly after the Nagasaki explosion:
is more disturbed over the use of atomic bombs than I am, but
I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese
on Pearl Harbor and the murder of our prisoners of war.
The only language they seem to understand is the one we
have been using to bombard them.
When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him
as a beast."10
is a capsule illustration of what Erik Erikson has called "pseudo-speciation,"
a process by which an "enemy" traditionally is deprived
of membership in the human race proper, thus solving the problem
of guilt, if only on the surface.11
Since operationally the condemnations that both Type I and Type II terrorism have received so far have generally been ineffective, there is no reason to think that Type I terrorists will continue to limit themselves to paleotechnic means and to essentially unsuccessful missions. On the contrary, the same dynamic that escalated the technological sophistication of state terrorism is bound to act also within individual and group terrorism of Type III. Therefore three developments may be expected. One is the attempt by one or more states to disseminate, not directly but through hired gangs, both the technology and also the cultural ground for successful terror, i.e., to secure the marriage of advanced technology and the intent to traumatize through cataclysmic disaster. The second is that gangs, not necessarily or openly associated with states but motivated by a fervid ideology (analogous to the case of the Bolsheviks), will perform that same sinister marriage on their own.
Third, a nation targeted for the new terrorism will not have open to it the conventional response i.e., a balance of terror against an identifiable Type II threat. Therefore it will have to devise new measures, both for making terror acts unacceptably costly to each or all probable instigators, and for initiating policies that might defuse the conditions likely to be animating the potential terrorists.
There is a final point. As Type III terrorists scale up the levels of activity, chances are that some terrorists may experience technical failures, particularly in their early preparations. Any attempt to produce damage on a very large scale requires a certain amount of technical mastery that may not be easy to transmit locally to what previously would have been merely a band of Type I terrorists. The distance in competence between the supplier of the new weapon on the one hand and the operator on the other hand can be very large, even in the cases where such weapons are used by advanced states in warfare.12
even "failures" of weapons (nuclear, chemical, or biological)
on the scale of Type II agents but in the hands of Type III agents
could be attended by enormous deleterious effects, devastating
to life in unintended areas. It may well be that precisely such a catastrophic
"failure" could serve to mark the full extent of the
discontinuity in world history.
* Revision, at certain points, of a paper with the same title, presented at the Conference on Terrorism, held at Stanford, California, 1976, and published in TERRORISM: An International Journal, vol. 1, nos. 3/4, 1978 (pp. 265-276).
Copyright © 2002, Gerald Holton
Conversely, the Mayas, being well advanced in the study of solar
astronomy, are said to have been much less vulnerable than earlier
European peoples to the appearance of solar eclipses.
2 Thompson, Stith,
Motive-Index of Folk Literature (Bloomingdale, IN: Indiana University
3 Georges Sorel,
Reflections on Violence,
trans. T. E. Hulme and J. Roth, with an introduction by Edward
A. Shils (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1950).
4 Quoted in Martin
J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand
Alliance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), pp. 204-205.
5 Gilbert F. Wittemore, Jr. "World War I, Poison Gas Research, and the Ideal of American Chemists," Social Studies of Science 5 (1975): 151.
6 The same theme of efficiency is found in the detailed operations of the camps. Thus, I have seen in the archives in Auschwitz records of experimental research to determine the number of calories needed in the food supply to keep the average inmate not so weak as to be unable to work in the labor sections of the camp, nor so strong as to survive for more than some nine months at the outset. Moreover, when the available food supply was tuned to this particular aim, camp inmates could be persuaded to do a great deal for relatively small favors (e.g., being rewarded by scooping a ladleful of soup from the bottom of the kettle, where there might be some potatoes, rather than from the top). Thus the camps were policeable with less manpower.
7 Quoted from
the Report as reprinted
in The Project Physics Course Reader, Unit 6, The
Nucleus (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), p. 206. Edward
Teller maintained that he also was sympathetic to the aims of
that group in 1945: "[In
a letter by Einstein in 1945] it was emphasized that one should
not use the atomic bomb except by way of demonstration.
I also was of the opinion at that time that this was
correct. In my opinion, it would have been sufficient
to explode the bomb at a suitably harmless height above Tokyo....On
the other hand, it was Oppenheimer who quite explicitly recommended
the release of the atomic bomb."
(Translated from the interview "Professor Haber
stellt vor: Edward Teller," Bild der Wissenschaft
[October 1975], p. 106.)
However, the contemporaneous documentation, e.g., in
the J. R. Oppenheimer papers in the Library of Congress, appears
to lead one to a rather different conclusion.
9 This is obviously simpler to do in peacetime than in the middle of a war. The Vatican paper might have counterposed Leonardo's supposed action with the declaration of the Italian scientist Nicolo Tartaglia, who in mid-sixteenth century had kept his treatise on ballistics to himself until the Turks advanced: "Today, however, in the sight of the ferocious wolf preparing to set on our flock, and of our pastors united for the common defense, it does not seem to me any longer proper to hold these things [scientific discoveries of use in warfare] hid, and I have resolved to publish them partly in writing, and partly by word of mouth, for the benefit of Christians so that all should be in a better state either to attack the common enemy or to defend themselves against him."
10 For passages from the Truman papers, see Barton J. Bernstein, Hiroshima and Nagasaki Reconsidered: The Atomic Bombings of Japan and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1945 (Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Co., 1975). Along the same lines is Dean Acheson's recollection about J. Robert Oppenheimer and Truman: "I accompanied Oppie into Truman's office. Oppie was wringing his hands and said, 'I have blood on my hands.' 'Don't ever bring that damn fool in here again,' Truman told me afterward. 'He didn't set that bomb off. I did. This kind of sniveling makes me sick.'" (Newsweek, 20 October 1969, p. 71.) Similarly, when Niels Bohr obtained an interview with Winston Churchill in 1944 and argued for the internationalization of atomic energy as a way of avoiding a postwar arms race, Churchill was so outraged that he ordered "inquiries should be made regarding the activities of Professor Bohr, and steps taken to insure that he is responsible for no leakage of information, particularly to the Russians." Quoted from Margaret Gowing, Britain and Atomic Energy, 1939-1945 (London: St. Martin's, 1964) in Bernstein, Hiroshima and Nagasaki Reconsidered, p. 5. It is considered likely that Bohr might have been interned if it had not been for Roosevelt's sympathy.
11 An analogous
process that tends to work toward the same end might be
It allows scientists and other "experts"
not to oppose an insufficient political and sociological
act or view, by regarding themselves incompetent to deal
with the uses others make of their work.
12 Thus when General Groves was asked by General Marshall to boil down his report on the first successful test of the atomic bomb at Alamogordo to half a page for use by the President and his staff, General Groves stressed that the bomb, only a few kilograms heavy and carried by a single plane, would produce a devastation equivalent to an attack by many hundreds of B-29s, General Marshall is reported to have only one question: "How large is a kilogram?"