July 28, 1996 in Nation/World

Unknown Killer Prowls Information Highway

Thomas L. Friedman New York Times
 

What is so frightening about the explosion of TWA Flight 800, the U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia and now the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics is that we seem to be dealing with a new kind of terrorist: “Anonymous” - the real Anonymous, the one who matters, the person who with a small pipe bomb or a single shoulder-held rocket can disturb the sleep of an entire globe, can jangle the nerves of governments high and mighty and yet prefers to savor it all alone - anonymously.

And what is doubly frightening is the thought of Anonymous operating in the information age. All he needs is a bomb in the right place - and the Internet, 500 cable channels, MSNBC, CNN and Sky Television will do the rest, carrying his deed to every corner of the globe in real time. And so from the remotest village in the Australian outback to the capitals of the world, everyone will know of Anonymous’ work, everyone will be part of the reaction.

The irony that we all know, and can all be unnerved by, an unknown terrorist is what really characterizes this new age. Never have more people been more fully informed, and more deeply rattled, by someone they cannot identify and for causes they don’t know.

When the crudest form of technology, a pipe bomb, can team up with the highest forms of technology, the information superhighway, and when the unknown can team up with the all-knowing, you have a very disturbing combination.

I did not read about the Atlanta bomb in my newspaper, or hear about it from television or radio. I got up Saturday morning, flipped on my computer and was about to read the Middle East news on the Internet when I came across the news from Atlanta on America Online.

“When World War I broke out, people spoke about ‘The shot that was heard around the world.’ That was a metaphor for the political significance of the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo, which started the war,” said Stephen Cohen, a leading expert on conflict resolution. “But it was only a metaphor. Because that shot wasn’t actually heard around the world. Now the shots are literally heard around the world, even if they have no political meaning. Now the sheer noise of violence is louder than any political message it might bear. The only message is fear.”

Indeed, one of the ironies of this new age of terrorism is that even the terrorists are being drowned out by the noise they make. Why do they prefer to be anonymous? Because police technology is now so good, some terrorists prefer to do their deeds, enjoy the results and avoid responsibility or apprehension.

But sooner or later - maybe very soon - investigators will no doubt identify Anonymous in Atlanta and Long Island. Normally that would make us feel a bit more secure. If we can give a face and logic to an act, somehow it will make sense and thereby relieve anxiety. But the anxiety and loss of freedom triggered by these acts, even when the perpetrators are identified, will remain after their apprehension.

Because that anxiety isn’t just linked to the solving of a particular crime or political problem, but to our increased vulnerability generally. An anonymous terrorist with the right bomb in the right place can lower the quality of life for an entire globe.

To be a world-class Olympic athlete you need to train for years to prepare your mind and body. To be a world-class, world-shaking terrorist now, you need only a pipe bomb, a bag and the World Wide Web. No name required.

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