El terror en el pasado y en el futuro

IMOTHY McVEIGH’S bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City seems as if it happened less than 10 years ago, but its 10th anniversary, which happened a week ago, seems as if it didn’t happen at all. And for practical purposes it didn’t. Lots of stories made a bigger ripple in the week’s zeitgeist – some of them understandably (new pope chosen), some less so (on «American Idol,» Anwar’s journey ends).
This attention deficit is partly explained by what took place in Lower Manhattan six years after the bombing. Osama bin Laden’s atrocity dwarfed Timothy McVeigh’s along several dimensions – more Americans killed by more killers with a larger political base. Though the McVeigh bombing seems not so long ago, it also seems like part of a simpler era, before we knew real danger.
But letting the memory of Mr. McVeigh fade has its own dangers. In a crucially instructive sense he and Mr. bin Laden represent the same threat. Though their ideologies differ (I’m guessing they wouldn’t have hit it off), both were empowered by a force that will empower tomorrow’s terrorists even more. Unfortunately, it’s a force that the Bush administration has a deep aversion to confronting. And there’s no better illustration of this aversion than one of the many people who got more press last week than Timothy McVeigh: John R. Bolton, Mr. Bush’s choice for ambassador to the United Nations.
The force I’m darkly alluding to is technology, and, to be sure, it’s been much discussed since 9/11. Productively, even. Lots of people now see how stubbornly the threat from weapons of mass destruction grows. Progress in biotechnology, for example, will put more bioweapon tools and ingredients within reach of more people at pharmaceutical companies, universities, and so on. There’s also more appreciation of how advances in information technology help terrorist groups hatch plans and orchestrate them, and even help these groups form and grow in the first place.
But if we really appreciated how stubborn these trends are and how ecumenically they abet terrorists, we’d keep Mr. McVeigh’s image not just alive but right next to Mr. bin Laden’s. And we’d see the tolls the two men took – more than 150 in 1995, nearly 3,000 in 2001 – as the first two entries in an ominous sequence. Timothy McVeigh may seem primitive (a bomb made of fertilizer?), but he’s primitive in the classic sense of the word: he represents an early phase in a natural growth.
Even in the spring of 1995, microelectronics was helping extremist groups coalesce and harden. They circulated videotapes like «Waco: The Big Lie,» a McVeigh favorite. It was incendiary and dishonest, like an Al Qaeda recruiting video, just not distributed online. After Mr. McVeigh accomplished his mission, the far right used shortwave radio to tell the faithful that the American government had done the deed in order to discredit their cause. (Sound familiar?)
Similarly, Mr. McVeigh’s fertilizer bomb may seem quaint compared to the post-9/11 anthrax or the nuclear materials we fear Al Qaeda has, but it falls into their lineage once you reduce all three to their basic source: growing ingenuity in the concoction of lethal force; wider availability of the ingredients in an ever-more-industrialized, interconnected world; and growing access, via information technology, to the knowledge needed to use them.
Of course, Osama-era technologies are more menacing than McVeigh-era technologies. That’s the point. What today’s Internet is to shortwave radio and mailed videotapes, tomorrow’s Internet will be to today’s. As streaming video penetrates the most remote parts of the world, every Web-cam-equipped terro-vangelist will have global reach. And information technologies, like the advancing weapons technologies whose use they make more likely, are equal-opportunity empowerers: radical Islam, radical environmentalism, neo-Nazism, whatever.
Yet America’s war on terror defines the threat more narrowly: out there in the «Muslim world» or the «Arab world,» things need to change.
We need to put our safety ahead of American sovereignty, and address the technology of a terrorist threat, or we won’t be secure.

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