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The Car Bomb’s Brilliant Future


 

The first car bomb exploded on Wall Street. It was set there by an Italian American anarchist, Mario Buda, in solidarity with Sacco and Vanzetti. Forty people died on that September 1920 day, and the assassin fled the country for his native Italy. J. P. Morgan’s son was injured, and Joseph Kennedy was shaken up. Nonetheless, writes Mike Davis in his catalogue history (Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, Verso, 2007), "a poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse had managed to bring unprecedented terror to the inner sanctum of American capitalism."

Terror is a peculiar sensation. It scars us with the feeling that our lives can prematurely end, and that things we hold dear can be destroyed in moments. That feeling corrodes one’s sense of security, and it is not easy to wash away. Anyone who has experienced any form of trauma knows what this feels like: it can be debilitating. Recovery is not as easy as it is made out to be.

Naomi Klein’s encyclopedic new book (The Shock Doctrine, Metropolitan, 2007) shows how a group of deceitful men such as Milton Friedman and his Chicago Boys figured out how to use this trauma to their ends. If a society is sufficiently shocked by an event of terror, it will be so shaken up that a few prepared men can easily push through a regime of order (however authoritarian) to give a feeling of security, while it breaks down all institutions won by the people for their wellbeing. The test case of Chile (1973) occupies Klein, but not for long. There are too many societies that are victim of shock therapy, and each of them teaches us something different about how terror is used by certain sections to their benefit.

After 911, a shocking incident in each of its meanings, the US government pledged not only to go after those who had conducted the event (endless war), but also to better protect the American people. The government now spends tens of billions of dollars on homeland security (the National Priorities Project shows that whereas the Department of Homeland Security spends $43 billion, the government-wide homeland security expenditure is $58 billion, with some overlap between the two). Some of it on senseless projects. The two thousand residents of Dillingham, Alaska, for instance, should now feel safer with eighty surveillance cameras (cost: $202,200), and the good people at the Kentucky Office of Charitable Gaming should feel better for the $36,000 slated to "prevent terrorists from trying to raise money for their plots at the state’s bingo halls." These are easy to pick out from the thousands of disbursements. It is harder to figure out which targets are more plausible.

In 2003, the White House produced a National Strategy for the Physical Protection of Critical Infrastructures and Key Assets. The document listed specific sites that needed to be defended. The numbers are startling: 137 million postal and shipping sites, 2 million farms, 250,000 defense firms, 167,000 gas stations, 87,000 food processing plants, 80,000 dams, 66,000 chemical plants, 3000 government facilities, 440 skyscrapers and on. Why some gas stations are listed and not others raises the kind of bogus flag that befuddles bureaucrats. But that’s should not be the main issue under deliberation.

The main problem is whether it is possible to secure such a vast territory, and its enormous footprint across the planet, from those who are schooled in the arts of asymmetric warfare. A suicide bomber walks into a Citibank office in Jakarta, or a car bomb explodes next to a US convoy in Baghdad, or indeed a depressed kid kills a score of people in a rural US high school. It is possible to stop each of these acts, but only with a surveillance and interdiction apparatus that is enormous. In Borges’ "Of Exactitude in Science" he writes of an empire’s obsession with cartography, of making the perfect map. "In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point." For the US, this obsession is not so much with maps as with law enforcement: surveillance to maintain order. If attacks will come anywhere, then everything must be watched, and protected. This is impossible. A pair with guns and a car terrorized Washington, DC in October 2002 (the "beltwar snipers attacks"); they had no connection to al-Qaeda and nothing that would have warned the FBI of an impending terror campaign. To believe that we can actually spend our way into an armed safety is to hide in a gated community (which is also porous for example, Baghdad’s Green Zone receives its share of mortar attacks).

Enter the RAND Corporation. Several months ago, its researchers produced a report ("Exploring Terrorist Targeting Preferences," authored by Martin Libicki, Peter Chalk and Melanie Sisson) that tried to delineate a procedure to see how al-Qaeda will come up with its targets. Looking at all the previous attacks, and looking at al-Qaeda’s strategy, the RAND researchers concluded, "The next attack may well take place in Ohio even if there are reasons to believe that Ohio (or most of the other 50 states) is not particularly favored for an attack." Al-Qaeda might want to coerce the US, it might want to damage US society, it might want to rally its own followers or it might simply franchise the attacks to others; all this might come to pass, and yet we won’t know where exactly the "war of a thousand cuts" will strike. The Nazi war machine knew that the allies could land at only a few beachheads (Normandy being one of them); the Pentagon has no idea where or how al-Qaeda or its franchises might do their next assault.

Indeed, in Mike Davis’ book, he details, exhaustively, how the modern state has not been able to fully repulse terrorist attacks through military means. The only way, he concludes, is for a political solution. The bulk of those who are maimed and killed by acts of terror are not those who hold the reins of power: it is the ordinary people whose lives are easier to take than those who hide in the planet’s Green Zone. The rest of us, Davis writes, live in the Red Zone, and it is in our interest to think seriously about where terrorism comes from and how to disarm it. The only solution is to remove the conditions that spawn the social forces frustrated into the "propaganda of the deed." A Royal Ulster Constabulary officer told journalist Tim Pat Coogan that the way to get rid of car bombs in Ulster is to make political settlements. "Two men with shovels can make up a thousand pound bomb in Fermanagh cowshed and if for some reason the operation has to be aborted, they can decommission it again, all within twelve hours. You can’t decommission shovels. It’s minds which have to be decommissioned." As Davis says in response, "Since there is little likelihood of any of the socio-economic reforms or concessions to self-determination that might lead to the large-scale ‘decommissioning of minds’ (indeed the trends are quite the opposite), the car bomb has a brilliant future. Buda’s wagon truly has become the hot rod of the apocalypse."

Mike Davis is not dystopic, even as he is often read like that (especially his work on Los Angeles). It is the world that appears dystopic, particularly with so little motion to overturn the Davos dispensation. Wars of terror and destructive nature, Naomi Klein writes, have enabled those who siphon the people’s labor to construct a "disaster industrial complex," where tax money is given over to security services and relief organizations who thrive on demolition. We have to know how these systems operate in order to know how to overcome them: it is this exercise of knowledge that makes these books utopian in the purest sense.

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