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PITTS: What terrorists must have to succeed - our fear

  • Lee Rigby

I have not seen the video.

Not saying I won’t, but for now, I’ve chosen not to. To rush online and seek out cellphone footage of two fanatics with machetes who butchered a British soldier in London on Wednesday, to watch them standing there, hands painted red with his blood, speaking for the cameras, would feel like an act of complicity, like giving them what they want, like being a puppet yanked by its strings.

Sometimes, especially in the heat of visceral revulsion, we forget an essential truth about terrorism. Namely, that the people who do these things are the opposite of powerful. Non-state sponsored terror is a tactic chosen almost exclusively by the impotent.

These people have no inherent power. They command no armies, they boss no economies, their collective arsenals are puny by nation-state standards. No, what they have is a willingness to be random, ruthless and indiscriminate in their killing.

But they represent no existential danger. The United States once tore itself in half and survived the wound. Could it really be destroyed by men using airliners as guided missiles? Britain was once bombed senseless for eight months straight and lived to tell the tale. Could it really be broken by two maniacs with machetes?

Of course not.

No, terrorism’s threat lies not in its power, but in its effect, its ability to make us appalled, frightened, irrational, and, most of all, convinced that we are next, and nowhere is safe. Here, I’m thinking of the lady who told me, after 9/11, that she would never enter a skyscraper again. As if, because of this atrocity, every tall building in America — and how many thousands of those do we have? — was suddenly suspect. And I’m thinking of my late Aunt Ruth who, at the height of the anthrax scare, required my uncle to open the mail on the front lawn after which, she received it wearing latex gloves.

I am also thinking of the country itself, which, in response to the 9/11 attacks, launched two wars — one more than necessary — at a ruinous cost in lives, treasure and credibility that will haunt us for years.

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