Friday, August 26, 2005

Cold Comfort
Occasionally I yield to the temptation to stray from my main topic of energy. This week's Economist provides a good excuse, with a fascinating comparison of the current wave of jihadist terrorism to the anarchist terrorists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I always appreciate this sort of historical perspective, particularly from a solid source, but I have to admit that I didn't find their thesis--that jihadists would eventually fade away, just as anarchists did--very comforting. On closer examination, this analogy has at least as many disturbing elements as it does reassuring ones.

The article presents the history of more than a generation's worth of bombings and assassinations by dedicated anarchists bent on bringing down the established order by violence. The similarities to the current situation are obvious. Unfortunately, it took a world war and the collapse of at least four empires to render the anarchists and their cause irrelevant. It's not clear whether their ranks were simply thinned by combat casualties, Bolshevik ruthlessness, and the Great Influenza, or if they just got too much of their own medicine and retired into quiet obscurity.

Although we might eventually look back on bin Laden and his ilk as a similar historical footnote, the risk of incalculably greater consequences outweighs the merits of a wait-them-out strategy. The world of 1900, while globalizing rapidly, was much less vulnerable than ours to infrastructure disruption, and it had barely contemplated the idea of a weapon of mass destruction, as we now understand the term. The stakes have changed by orders of magnitude.

I find it difficult to fit this article and the accompanying editorial (subscription required) into the context of The Economist's support for the War on Terror, including the invasion of Iraq. In addition, it's worth noting that the same forces that ended the anarchists' threat also shattered an entire generation of European youth and put Britain on the road to second-rank status. Does The Economist suggest that such a price awaits us in the War on Terror?

Regardless of one's views on Prime Minister Blair's crackdown on those who incite terrorism, or the provisions of our own Patriot Act, the history of anarchist terrorism does not provide the basis for a policy of patience and tolerance for Islamo-fascism. This conclusion leaves us without a lot of comfortable answers, but at least it forces us to face up to the unique nature of the threat posed by what Tom Friedman refers to as "super-empowered individuals".

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