Philip Zelikow: The terrorists are like ... anarchists of old, with one big but





First there’s al-Qaeda: its affiliates, its adherents. What’s notable about it—the ideology is familiar, the president has given a speech recounting at some length the kind of ideas al-Qaeda espouses—is to step back and notice that these ideas are basically fantasist and the organization and its operation has been significantly broken by our efforts since 9/11 and now is largely atomized, though still quite dangerous for that. It is reminiscent in some respects, speaking as a one-time historian, to the threat that anarchism seemed to pose to the civilized world 100 years ago. All sorts of cells around the world, which were believed to be affiliated with each other, somehow seemed to be working together. They were animated by a common ideology without formal structure but drew common inspiration from ideologues like Prince Kropotkin in London....

But when you step back from this terrorist phenomenon, one thing that’s worth some perspective—you can’t pass without comment, even though we know it semiconsciously—is to observe the historically unprecedented nihilism and barbarity of these terrorists. There is simply no precedent for it. I remarked on the anarchists earlier. An anarchist of 1906 would regard the terrorist activities perpetrated by these groups—the beheadings on television so on—these are people who would plant dynamite in a public street and they would be appalled by the things that these groups are willing to do and countenance. Today’s groups both create and play to what I’m afraid I can only call a desensitized and debased public sensibility—a public so callous that it does not recoil anymore at the shocks that are being inflicted on them and the appalling contrast to civilization that these groups present. ...




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