Monday, August 25, 2003

Are suicide attacks the 'ultimate weapon'?

The Belmont Club argued in Replaying the Tet that Islamic terrorism's shift towards "soft targets" in the face of the relative invincibility of United States forces would unleash a tidal wave of hatred upon the innocent bystanders of the world which would swamp the Left's apologia of Muslim extremism. That carnival of carnage has begun. A series of bombs has just ripped through India's financial capital of Bombay, killing at least 40 and injuring more than 100. However ardently the media outlets work at blaming the latest outrage on America, the jihadis will always keep one bloody step ahead of them.

The New York Times is trying another tack. If Islamic extremism cannot be portrayed as innocent or wholesome, it can at least be invested with an aura of invincibility. In a story titled The Terror Industry Fields Its Ultimate Weapon, Don van Natta Jr. explains that "From Jerusalem to Jakarta and from Bali to Baghdad, the suicide bomber is clearly the weapon of choice for international terrorists." And the reason is simply that it appears to be an extremely cheap and deadly form of attack. The article quotes Jessica Stern, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government as saying "It's certainly cost-effective both financially and in terms of the number of terrorist lives ultimately put at risk." One of Professor Stern's sources, Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab gave this assessment:

A person using a knife, Mr. Shanab explained, is usually "nervous." A gun takes intensive training, and too much time. Knife and gun attacks also depend on a degree of luck. Things can go wrong. But a suicide bomber, to be a success, only needs that single moment of courage, Mr. Shanab said, which he found was in abundant supply in Gaza. Young men and women who carried out such missions had usually seen what they viewed as "something terrible, some kind of atrocity," he said. "Islam says, `an eye for an eye.ยด We believe in retaliation. When someone is killed in jihad, it is a joyful day."

And suicide attacks are the kind of tactic, the article went on to say, that advertise themselves -- with a little help from the media. Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews explains its attractions:

"In an instant you are propelled from being no one to someone who is glorified, and lionized with poems, and you live on in this historical chain of heroic martyrs, being remembered and saluted far longer than if you had not undertaken this kind of operation. ... Mr. Ranstorp worries that the next phase of suicide bombings will involve not just bombers posing for posterity but the videotaping of attacks. He worries that satellite channels will air the horrible moments almost instantly to a future generation of suicide bombers. "They learned from the psychological impact of 9/11, the horrible moment being replayed over and over," he said. "Someday, terrorists will be armed with bombs and cameras."

Is there nothing left but to surrender to the "ultimate asymmetric weapon", to bow before the invincible warriors armed with bombs and cameras? The Left has fielded that argument before. Finally unable justify Stalin, it attempted to portray a voluntary capitulation to tyranny as preferable to the annihilation that would attend defiance. "Better Red than dead," argued Bertrand Russell, and we meet the false dichotomy again in its modern form.

But the logic is wrong. Suicide bombing is warfare's least cost effective weapon because it puts any consideration of a negotiated settlement between the combatants out of the question. In economic terms, it destroys the Pareto optimal frontier and reduces conflict to a zero-sum game. When the passengers of Flight 93 learned their aircraft had been commandeered for a suicide mission against the White House, ordinary men like Todd Beamer rushed the cabin without hesitation or thought of survival. When faced with a fanatical enemy bent on killing everyone the battlefield choices are rapidly narrowed to either the acceptance of your own destruction or the total annihilation of the enemy. And it is the zero-sum game that Islam should fear. For the value of that game is the expected value that Islam will annihilate the world minus the expected value that the world will annihilate Islam. The natural outcome of the kamikazes was the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Nothing else would do. The natural reaction of the passengers on Flight 93 was to fight on at all costs. Nothing else would do. And the eventual reaction of nuclear-armed Israel, Russia and India to the unlimited slaughter of their populations does not bear thinking upon. And it will not be surrender, but rather something else. That is the cost effectiveness of suicide bombing.