Living in the Era of Megaterror
Forty years ago this week at the Munich Olympics of 1972, Palestinian terrorists conducted one of the most dramatic terrorist attacks of the 20th century. The kidnapping and massacre of 11 Israeli athletes attracted days of around-the-clock global news coverage of Black September’s anti-Israel message. Three decades later, on 9/11, Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 individuals at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, announcing a new era of megaterror. In an act that killed more people than Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, a band of terrorists headquartered in ungoverned Afghanistan demonstrated that individuals and small groups can kill on a scale previously the exclusive preserve of states.
Today, how many people can a small group of terrorists kill in a single blow? Had Bruce Ivins, the U.S. government microbiologist responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks, distributed his deadly agent with sprayers he could have purchased off the shelf, tens of thousands of Americans would have died. Had the 2001 “Dragonfire” report that Al Qaeda had a small nuclear weapon (from the former Soviet arsenal) in New York City proved correct, and not a false alarm, detonation of that bomb in Times Square could have incinerated a half million Americans.
In this electoral season, President Obama is claiming credit, rightly, for actions he and U.S. Special Forces took in killing Osama bin Laden. Similarly, at last week’s Republican convention in Tampa, Jeb Bush praised his brother for making the United States safer after 9/11. There can be no doubt that the thousands of actions taken at federal, state and local levels have made people safer from terrorist attacks.
Many are therefore attracted to the chorus of officials and experts claiming that the “strategic defeat” of Al Qaeda means the end of this chapter of history. But we should remember a deeper and more profound truth. While applauding actions that have made us safer from future terrorist attacks, we must recognize that they have not reversed an inescapable reality: The relentless advance of science and technology is making it possible for smaller and smaller groups to kill larger and larger numbers of people.