In what distant deeps or skies
burnt the fires of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was they brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp?
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
To answer the question of how warriors conquer “that most primordial of terrors, which resides in our very blood, as in all life, beasts as well as men,” it’s been offered that this is most often achieved through the fact that “fear conquers fear.”2 We all like to tell ourselves that there exists a cause in this world that we would unflinchingly and heroically die for. But the reality isn’t that sexy. If we are willing to put our lives on the line, this eventuality is – perhaps more so than anyone likes to admit – highly dependant not so much on our own ideals and internal strength.
But on the those around us.
Because it’s only through “counterpoising to fear of death a greater fear” that “dogs in a pack find courage to take on a lion.” That greater fear is the fear of dishonor. Of losing the love and respect of those around you. There’s a simple calculus for solving the problem of fear. “Each hound knows its place. He fears the dog ranked above and feeds off the fear of the dog below.”3 Humans have long shown they willingly give up their lives for the greater social group when the fear of their death is trumped by the fear of other fates.
Such as of exclusion from the pack.
Letting your buddies down and being extricated from the support and meaning their lives give you. What sets Ramzi Yousef apart in the role he played in the fomentation of militant Islamic fundamentalism isn’t just his efficacy and vision as a commando operative. There’s a lot to respect in terms of his plans, which had unprecedented scope yet stuck as closely as possible to refined simplicity in terms of their actual execution. But what’s most telling about Yousef is what he failed to do, and the roles he left open for others who came after him to fill.
Ramzi Yousef was not willing to die for his cause. And his men weren’t willing to die for him or each other. And so the death they were able to bring into the world was severely limited. Although he gained an enormous amount of notoriety and helped usher Islamic fundamentalist terrorism into the modern era and the American heartland, when it comes down to it he was a coward and a hack.
At every turn he left the men he was using to rot and not once did he ever show he believed in anything more than his own fame.
Because he never really had a cause, Yousef never had a pack. He never claimed to be part of al-Qaeda, he never wanted to share his achievements with any larger group. The terror he sought to wreak was always firmly rooted in the Tactical and never touched the Symbolic end of the balance because Yousef never had any cause or ideal to symbolize. Despite seeking to kill only civilians, Ramzi Yousef is in a way better understood as a commando, albeit an amoral one, than as a terrorist when he is compared to the men who followed him through the door to the West that he’d opened.
Symbolism was never a goal of his plots, as Operation Bojinka illustrates to perfection. No one at all would’ve seen any of the dozen planes exploding over the vast silent waters of the Pacific. The thousands of deaths would’ve happened out of camera’s view. If there would be any record of the lives lost in the media it would only have been the water’s mottling wherever a plane’s wreckage patiently waited to descend beneath the waves.
There could not be more of a contrast with the events of September the 11th. That was an attack meant to tilt the balance of Terror heavily to the Symbolic, as bin Ladin himself has said he only meant for the planes to light the Towers afire and never expected them to collapse. They were meant to be Twin Torches, lighting the way for the coming of a new Islamic vanguard.
And of all the federal, military, or intelligence targets to strike – the Pentagon would be the one least likely to create tactical damage since it’s constructed as one giant fortified bunker. But its very name is, unique among all American military buildings, a description of the symbol it describes. It was chosen not just because of it’s tactical significance, but because much more than any other building – it symbolizes America’s military might like no other individual building does.
Al-Qaeda as it’s most often thought of now in the West was not born until 9/11. And even so, what exactly it means and embodies is more often than not misunderstood and misconstrued in the West. It is a group, a belief, and a reformation all at once. And it’s precedented only in piecemeal – it’s a convergence of forces that have ripped through history’s pages before, but never coalesced together on a world that is so fully one interconnected stage. All the world always may have been a stage, but never before has the stage been crisscrossed by technologies that allow everyone on it to communicate instantaneously with everyone else.
And once al-Qaeda had warmed the international Muslim community up to the necessity and efficacy of Islamic fundamentalist terror, ISIS was able to draw strength and numbers with devastating ease by utilizing the internet’s infinite propagandic potential, attracting new members from points across the globe. Muslims took a look around their communities and realized that they were not wanted, or that their lives were stridently dissonant with the tenants of Islam. And so at first in a barely perceptible trickle and then in ever-growing rivulets, ISIS consolidated it’s armies and its legitimacy.
Understanding terrorism, the societal decay and collapse it signifies, and its place in the merging currents of violent Islamic fundamentalism requires telling the story of the first men who sought to harness the virulent power of “propaganda by deed,” a return to the inventiveness of the terror and death that has gripped the Middle East throughout history, and a willingness to see the world through someone else’s eyes – to surrender moral judgment for a while.
So that you can become, for just a few pages, part of the terrorist pack.
It’s easy to label terrorists as Evil and leave it at that, to dismiss the place of careful measured analysis. But there’s no understanding gained from this. And nothing can be fought until it’s understood. At the most basic level an act of terrorism is the action of a group of men, and the forces that bring together a group of men do not pay heed to morality. These forces neither understand nor care what the groups they solder together may do, but as you come to know these forces – you come to know the very nature of terrorism itself.