Notebook

The Book, The Truck, And Terror

The site of the Manhattan attack on October 31
Sayfullo Saipov
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What the world is witnessing now is the age of the Lone Wolf

IT IS NOT unusual for a terrorist to say that ‘he feels accomplished’ after killing innocent persons. That is exactly what Sayfullo Saipov, 29, an Uzbek immigrant to the United States, told a hospital staffer after mowing down eight persons and injuring another 12 in downtown Manhattan on October 31st.

Saipov is emblematic of the new age of terrorism. The late 20th century and early 21st century pattern of Islamist terror depended greatly on planning by well-oiled organisations like Al Qaeda. Much like modern military organisations, this terrorism required individual cells to perform specific tasks that fell into place under the direction of a ring-leader. That way of inflicting terror seems to be over.

What the world is witnessing now is the age of the Lone Wolf. Armed with nothing but an idea, virtually everything is a weapon for him. For Saipov, it was a truck; for the two brothers who detonated a bomb at a marathon in Boston four years ago, a pressure cooker was enough. In many places in the Middle East, kitchen knives suffice. There is planning, no doubt, but no support from organisations. Osama bin Laden may have been hunted down and the Islamic State has been ousted from Raqqa, but Lone Wolves will continue long after those emblems of Islamist terror cease to be remembered.

The idea is simple: the West, Israel and anyone who opposes their brand of Islam is an enemy. The divisions of modern geography, economics and politics are dissolved and do not matter. All that is important is the idea.

This is a tough battle to fight. After Saipov’s handiwork, reporters were quick to trace and patch together his path to mayhem. In Stow, Ohio, Saipov began growing a beard and became agitated at the mere mention of America’s role in supporting Israel, a fact that alarmed a fellow Uzbek émigré. An imam at a mosque in Tampa, Florida, who disclosed only his first name—Abdul—said he was scared that Saipov was ‘misinterpreting’ Islam. Abdul dare not give his full name as he feared reprisals at ‘letting out’ on Saipov. This is the United States—a country separated by two oceans and armed with a massive anti-terrorist infrastructure—not Brussels where policemen apparently dare not enter ‘no go’ areas dominated by communities from the Middle East.

If intelligence is one problem—it is, as Saipov was on the radar of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and still managed to ram a truck into people—there are other reasons for what is happening. It could be argued that a part of the liberal edifice is now complicit in supporting ideas that terrorists openly use to their ends. In the US, for example, soon after what Saipov did, President Donald Trump said that the country’s ‘diversity visa lottery’—a system that allows up to 50,000 people from countries with lower levels of immigration into the US—should end. Within no time, all hell had broken lose. Champions of ‘diversity’—a highly politicised term which in the US landscape means a free-for-all attitude—immediately struck back. Disputable claims of immigrants bringing in skills that are useful were bandied again to say that the US under Trump is illiberal. In all this, what remains unanswered is why so many immigrants of one religion—and perhaps from one broad region—are ending up motivated to attack citizens of their adoptive country.

Earlier waves of immigration, for example from Europe in the aftermath of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, brought in highly skilled scientists, writers and technologists that the US gained greatly from. One can only think of an Enrico Fermi or an Albert Einstein. If these appear to be extreme examples of talent, the effect of an army of talented people was discernible immediately in countries taking in newcomers. The ‘diversity visa lottery’ crowd does not seem to be living up to this record.

Yet this is the postmodern landscape in which issues like terrorism are debated hotly. It is no longer a question about the why and whereof of terrorism but second-order and even higher order matters such as ‘diversity’, ‘representation’ and equality that take precedence every time something goes wrong. For obvious reasons, terrorists could ask no more.

One can render any issue complex. For example, surveillance to keep terrorism at bay is now the price to be paid to keep liberty alive. It remains a fiercely contested area, never mind the fact that private companies routinely use data-mining to create specific profiles of individuals to tailor their products and marketing strategies. But once a government tries to tap even a thin stream of data for providing security, the outcry is immense. It is almost as if the world has been shaved off its freedom.

What Saipov and would-be Saipovs do is simple: destroy human life for the sake of political goals, an idea that became abhorrent a long time ago. The fact that attempts to minimise their capacity for damage evokes opprobrium is a strange sight to behold. That is a good epitaph for contemporary liberalism.