Despite recent high-profile incidents, the United States remains relatively invulnerable to terrorism. No terrorist can hope to modify our governmental system or even our foreign policy. Terror in the USA is a naked expression of resentment, an attack on an enemy with whom one is in secret complicity, for its demonized power provides an irreplaceable explanation for one’s own failures. In the absence of a clear and feasible political goal, the creation of a climate of terror becomes an end in itself.
One often hears it said that “the terrorist always wins” because his act makes the rest of us more suspicious of one another. Terrorism exemplifies the contagion of violence, not in the acute form of the lynch mob, but in a more insidious slow-growth mode. Viruses that kill off their host, as in last year’s Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire, are far less deadly than those like HIV that let the host survive long enough to spread them. The fear the terrorist generates cannot be purged by his capture or even by that of an entire network; we can never be sure that others are not already infected. In the past, terrorist groups claimed credit for their attacks, even appropriating incidents perpetrated by others, on the reasoning that the claim spreads fear of the group and leads ultimately to the satisfaction of its demands. The recent Pan Am, World Trade Center, and (apparent) TWA bombings have broken with this rule. Terrorist groups, like horror film directors, have learned that terror is greater the less its source is defined. When terrorists remain anonymous, they collectively reap the fear generated by their violence. They can do this even when the violence is not theirs at all. If the Pan Am 103 bombers had not kept silent, we would probably be far less ready to believe–in the absence of any evidence–that TWA 800 met the same fate.
The contagion of violence is no news to students of René Girard. Indiscriminate violence is just what the human social order exists to protect us from. In our relatively, perhaps maximally peaceful world, the terrorist brutally reminds us that we are never as far from crisis as we would like to think. Our peace is shattered less by the violent act itself than by the realization it forces on us that human violence can never be eliminated, only deferred.
I think we speak too quickly when we grant the terrorist an easy victory. By returning us to a state of originary crisis, contagious violence leads us to reassert the universal human solidarity that alone can hold it in check. An unavowed source of the passion behind the search for life on Mars and elsewhere is the dream of uniting all humanity against a common enemy, as in the recent action film Independence Day. A similar point may be made about terrorism. The terrorist, like the alien invader, is the enemy of us all; whatever his political aims, his actions are directed at an entire nation, ultimately, at all humankind. Even as the terrorist makes us suspect each other, his act unites us more than it divides us. The annoyance of heightened security measures is accompanied by a sense of pride in making a small sacrifice for one’s country.
But because he is not an alien but one of us, the terrorist reveals the limits of human unity. The terrorist brings violence to places where we do not expect to find it; he flourishes in a world without real war. It is no accident that the fountainheads of terrorism are civil rather than national conflicts: Northern Ireland, the Near East, Afghanistan. The Intifada began when it became clear that open warfare by the Arab countries against Israel was impossible.
In the global village, all war is civil war. The more we act alike, look alike, are alike, the more our remaining differences risk provoking resentment. The fanatical hatred that sets the terrorist off from the common soldier is a sign of belonging despite himself to the same world as his enemy. The terrorist cannot be controlled by normal incentives; he risks death, even gladly accepts it: God is on his side. As Israelis know, there is no good defense against a suicide bomber; once he is wired for death, the damage is already done.
This sobering fact should not lead to despair or fatalism. It suggests rather that the only long-term response to terrorism is the same as modern society’s response to the other ills of resentment: finding means to recycle resentment into the exchange system. This is no easy task. The religious motivation of most terrorists is a form of resistance to the circulation of the market. Terrorists are the most fanatical of paleoconservatives; their hatred of the Jews, or the West, or the federal government is above all a fear of the universal exchange system that threatens the cultural identity of those not well adapted to it.
The marketplace has obvious enticements for the potential terrorist in the universal youth culture that gives adolescents the opportunity to dance and role-play away their victimary sentiments. But it is not enough to meet traditional values head on. In order to defer the resentment that leads to terrorism, the market system must find new degrees of freedom that will allow it to integrate within itself the upholders of these values. The American experience offers some useful examples; perhaps we should send a delegation of Mormons to Teheran.
The ultimate weapon against terrorism is dialogue, and the horizon of this dialogue between those eternal enemies, culture and the market, is the shared understanding of our common origin. The road to peace and to originary anthropology are one and the same.