Terror incognita

News from London. News from Egypt.

The latest from the UK shows just how cowardly terrorism is as an act. The image of a smoldering, confused would-be suicide bomber running out of a tube car looking for his partner — but you said it would blow me up — is simply pathetic. Too incompetent even to remove himself from the gene pool correctly. Terrorism is like any kind of media-borne meme. The more it spreads initially the more powerful it is. But there is a point at which it saturates and after fails to have the impact it once did. When horror turns to anger terrorism has failed. The problem is that terrorism is also a last-ditch effort, an act of desperation, and when people are desperate logic rarely works. It will take a long time for these cowards to realize that the initial power of their acts has long since dissipated.

I was thinking about why the London transit system, particularly the Underground, is such a target and I think the answer is fundamental to terrorism itself. Mass media of course is the accomplice of terrorism, the mechanism for global broadcast and amplification that allows a relatively small act to frighten millions. Terrorism succeeds or fails on this basic premise of small-to-large. The tube system is nothing but a physical network, the very embodiment of a vast, interconnected system where a small event ramifies outward until a much larger effect is achieved: total system shutdown. But there is a difference. Mass media is unidirectional; the tube is a true network. Media can only echo, amplify, send out. The tube — and all networks — adapts, re-routes, compensates. Human society is a network too and it adapts just like the tube does. Another lesson likely lost on the desperate.

And then Egypt. Beautiful, idyllic Sharm. When I was there in 2003 a shopkeeper ran after me on the boardwalk and begged me to come to his store. I thought he was just a pushy bazaar denizen, but when I got inside with my brother and co-worker he pulled out a book and showed us entries from people all over the world. He asked visitors to write something representative of their country, a kind of guestbook passport. He had dozens of European entries, but no American. It took me a moment, but I ended up writing the words to “Take My Out To The Ballgame.” The shopkeeper loved it and asked me to sing it. I’m no singer, but I didn’t care. I did my best. National pride, I guess. The shopkeeper shook my hand, hugged me, and sent us out with a massive smile. I have nothing but wonderful memories of Sharm. It cuts deeply to see the destruction there, like watching a gorgeous person senselessly disfigured. But there’s no fear, no terror. Only anger.