THE ENORMITY of the tragedy that befell America and the world on Tuesday may never be fully comprehended.
This act had the power to horrify even the coldest-hearted terrorist with a cause.
Iraq has muttered some absurdity about America paying the price for being American. Some Palestinian youngsters cheered in the streets of the West Bank without possibly knowing the real significance of the event. This was not an American police station; it was a building complex with a maximum population greater than most Palestinian cities.
But most of the world wept along with America.
Beirut came to mind as the shocking images appeared: the recollection of U.S. Marines being brought dead out of their crushed barracks in 1983; the other scenes of terrorist attacks in Lebanon and Israel, and a character I knew in Beirut in the 1980s.
He was a Druze, appropriately named Jihad, a henchman of the Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt, whose people had been engaged in a barbaric blood feud with the Christians of Lebanon for generations. Jihad's job was to help decide where the Druze car bombs would be placed in Beirut.
Terrorism, he would say, is the art of inflicting on your enemy such horrifying consequences that the enemy will be bewildered, unsettled, scared to death. Pick a place where many people will be. The more women and children, the better. Set off a small bomb that attracts a large crowd. Then set off the second larger bomb that kills a huge number of people.
The events of the week also brought to mind a film made in 1966. The Battle of Algiers was about the Algerian Arab uprising against the French in the 1950s. The film is considered a masterpiece for many reasons, among them that it is a vivid illustration of modern terrorism - especially the killing of innocent civilians for the sake of advancing a cause.
I watched the film again last week as America staggered in grief, thinking about the nature of terrorism, how it differs from conventional warfare, how the people who employ it do so because they do not have the means to wage conventional warfare, and how the impact of terrorism is so horribly stunning.
The most important part of the film, in this respect, is when the leaders of the Algerian uprising decide to kill French civilians in the capital. Three Algerian women are dispatched, looking like Europeans, carrying shopping baskets containing bombs, which they leave behind in a popular bistro, a dance bar and an Air France office. One of the women hesitates when she notices a child in the bistro. But all the women leave behind their shopping baskets, and many people are killed and injured when the bombs go off.
Later, a leader of the uprising is asked about this at a news conference after he has been captured by the French authorities. "Isn't it cowardly to use your women's baskets to carry bombs that have killed so many innocent people?"
"Is it less cowardly to drop your napalm on defenseless villages, killing thousands more?" the Algerian demands, apparently referring to Vietnam, where the French also were fighting insurgency. "Give us your bombers, and you can have our women's baskets."
Terrorism of this sort did not begin, nor obviously did it end, in the Algerian uprising against the French, who finally left in 1962. The Viet Minh used it against the French in Vietnam, and their successors used it against the Americans there later. The Mau Mau used it against the British in Kenya. The Irish Republican Army has been terrorizing the British for decades.
Palestinians have used unspeakable terror against the Israelis, drenching the Palestinian cause in the blood of innocent people. The Jewish underground used it against the British in Palestine. In 1946, Menachem Begin's Jewish underground group, the Irgun, blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing more than 80 British, Arab and Jewish civil servants of the British administration.
Begin at least had the decency to warn the British that the King David was about to be blown up so they could evacuate. A British official in the King David demonstrated the sort of arrogance that ultimately lost an empire: "We are not here to take orders from the Jews," he is recorded as saying. "We give them orders."
No matter how heinous the act of terror, though, some group and its mission was identifiable as the perpetrator, even in Lebanon's abiding blood feuds.
The Algerian insurgents, the Mau Mau, the IRA and the PLO and Hammas and Islamic Jihad, the Irgun, even the Druze and Christian car bombers in Lebanon, all had objectives that were clear. They wanted to punish those whom they viewed as their oppressors, or their rivals, at practically any cost. They did not hide their identity or their mission. If the means was to justify the end, people must know what the end was.
The act of terrorism that struck America last week is different. Its shocking cold-bloodedness will forever be deeply etched into the American memory and history. The amount of damage is practically incalculable, as are the numbers killed and the hugely important symbolism of the targets. Possibly this was the work of Osama bin Laden, but he and his people have not said so. No one has taken credit, no purpose has been stated.
Whoever did this has failed, not only in the obvious way that's being demonstrated by Americans who will continue living and thriving after this tragedy. But they have failed because nobody even knows what the purpose was.
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