Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                                  ESSAYS

                                                              26. Terrorism: The Other Side of the Hill
terrorism. transition state. September 11. Walter Laqueur.

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Essay 26. Terrorism: The Other Side of the Hill

Fresh memory of any dramatic event is distorted by emotions. They change the perception like the round aquarium stretches the shape of the fish in the water. At least, the fish is alive.

Something like that happens in everybody's personal life. With time, old grievances and infatuations fade away and seem aberrations, and the wound of the loss heals. We live on with the scars. 

With time we can contemplate the unperturbed skeleton of a catastrophic change on a historical scale, but we cannot live on as before because the very ground under our feet is different. While the analytical skeletal perception goes into history textbooks, the live view is lost forever. This is why historians value memoirs of eyewitnesses: they capture the ephemeral transition state of the change that itself is often driven by emotions.

My major emotion in the afternoon of September 11, 2001, when all had been over, was the pain of a great defeat, accompanied with the pain of anger and the pain of shame. The scale of death and destruction was so enormous that it suppressed the terror itself. 

Large numbers imply extra-human dimensions, but the disaster was man-made. The most powerful country in the world, the greatest democracy, and the only remaining superpower, the big, beautiful, liberal, and comfortable America, my sweet home for fourteen years, was defeated in an assault.

The pain of defeat, anger, and shame are exactly some of the components that most probably were the nutrients of the potting soil for terrorism. My first impetus was revenge, in which, two weeks later, I still see a natural and justified desire of victory. The French revanche is more appropriate. The English revenge is closer to the "an eye for an eye" vengeance. It was as if I had been challenged to become a terrorist myself.  I always approved of the commando style counter-terrorism: "one eye for three thousand eyes."

Two weeks later after September 11, I was already certain that the assault could have been prevented if the American apparatus for prevention were not flawed. The failure was imminent.

My way of thinking in terms of defeat, loss, fault, and guilt was purely emotional, i.e., fully appropriate in the temporal vicinity of the event.  I could see how deeply I, with all my skepticism, distrust of flag waving, suspicion of patriotism, and with a centrifugal force pushing me off any crowd,  became emotionally grown into the American national soil that had given me for the first time in my adult life the feeling of home. I was defeated together with everybody. A part of my home fell crumbling.

Immediately the process of sifting history out of the chunks of steel and human flesh, as well as attacks on Muslims and pacifist incantations, started in the media that used to notice the existence of the rest of the world only for an ultimate extravagance or ultimate disaster. Many dozens of specialists, diplomats, scholars, clerics, former statesmen, and consultants from an even larger pool of informed professionals were busy assembling the jigsaw puzzle of a large failure that culminated in September 11.

Meanwhile I was in the middle of my Essay project.

In Essay 23. On the Architecture of Change and  Essay 25. On Zippers   I tried to answer the central for me question: why and how the change happens. I invoked the image of Sisyphus that rolls his stone uphill, to the top of the transition barrier. In the myth, the stone rolls back because there is nothing behind the barrier, and nothing can change. In real life, if there is a new valley behind the hill, the stone can roll down to a new reality.


: A chemical reaction can be irreversible for some particular reasons. A metaphor: a pet  dog  can return home after wandering; a released wild animal most probably will never return. 

The stock market normally also possesses the property of micro-equilibrium. What is lost today can be gained tomorrow. The same is true about gambling. Over a long time, however, the market is believed to move only up and the roulette gambling can only deplete the player. This is always just a belief. Medium stretches of time, where loss or gain can be protracted and irreversible, can, in principle, exceed one's life.

In fact, the roulette is a small simple system and is fully predictable. There is no paradox in my statement because I mean the statistical prediction. Economy is a large complex system and even a long term prediction concerning the stock market can be wrong. The entire picture can be reversed in the conditions of a violent global competition for limited resources (land, energy, and water) in which the West has a large numerical disadvantage. History is full of examples of irreversible decline, without which there could not be history.

Large complex systems, such as society and evolving biosphere, roll over the barrier to the new, unseen, and unthinkable valley behind which a new hill chain stretches up to the horizon.

But here is a problem. How can it be? How can anything happen for the very first time if it had never happened before? We cannot list the future states because we cannot see any past.

The answer could be that if there is a space, the new state is just a point in this space, which was never visited before but existed as possibility because of the properties of the space. Thus, we may never be able to put our finger on the ceiling of the room, but it is possible because there is nothing between us and the ceiling. A fly can never visit the inside of a closed chest drawer, but theoretical it is possible because the drawer opens from time to time.

In biological evolution, a new species is determined by a new combination of the same basic four nucleotides in its genome. In this sense a new species is never exactly new: it is just different.

NOTE: This perception may change when we know more about how new genotypes are formed. A priori, there must be a source of novelty even in molecular evolution. One possibility is a bundling of segments of DNA into a hierarchical system so that not all sequences are equally probable.

A biologist, who looks at the appearance, behavior, and ecology of the species and does not care much about DNA, pays attention to the shifts from the different to the new: digestion, movement, skeleton, lungs, nervous system, etc., come as the new,  which is reflected in the taxonomy.

Biological evolution, therefore, occurs in an expanding taxonomic space, by inclusion of new dimensions. The same is true about evolution of any large complex system. The civilization space has been expanding.

Evolution and history consist of a sequence events that could be reversible on a short time scale, like the money supply and discount interest rate set by the Federal Reserve, but irreversible on a larger scale. This applies to individual life, too. The long days of childhood may all look alike but the parents see a fast progress. The child turning into adult experiences the quickening pace of an irreversible transformation. Same is true about the adult life punctuated by the moments of dramatic irreversibility.

What happened on September 11 was a large scale historic moment of irreversibility.

When humans set goals, it is human imagination that describes the valley on the other side. If I want to go shopping and plan to buy apples, the transition barrier between my present state and the future state of returning home with the apples is low: it amounts to the physical energy and money I need to get to the shop and to buy what I want. It may be high if I need to drive while out of gas.

The prisoner is said to always have an advantage over the jailer because he thinks day and night about the way out and the jailer has many other things to think about. The prisoner knows that the transition barrier between his current state and the imaginary free state is very high and he examines the wall for the weak spots.

The terrorists thought a lot about the other side of the hill,  they saw a clear sequence of steps uphill, and they saw that the hill was not steep. The prisoner and the jailer have the same view of the stable present state. Moreover, they have the same view of the possible future state, with different consequences for them. They both believe that the wall is high. The function of the jailer is to keep the wall high. The goal of the prisoner is to make it lower. After the prisoner develops his plan, they have different views of the transition state. Both visions are tentative, probabilistic, and carry no guarantee.

My point is that in the modern society with a large pool of experts of all kinds and the overall abundance of intelligent and imaginative people there are always people who can see the transition states (scenarios) of large scale events as good as the evil planners. There is always a game going on between the good and bad guys at a professional level.

My next point is that all the components of the September 11 were known in advance:

1. The precedent of an airplane crash into a skyscraper (14 people killed and 25 injured), when a B-25 medium bomber crashed into its 78th and 79th floors of the Empire State Building on its north facade. It was on  July 28, 1945.

"The building shuddered, realigned itself, and settled. Probably instantly, although several witnesses said there seemed to be a moment's interval, came the explosion, and the top of the fog-shrouded Empire State Building was briefly seen in a bright orange glow. High-octane airplane fuel spewed out of the ruptured tanks and sprayed the building…The heat was so intense that partition frames within offices disappeared, and the shattered glass from windows and lamp fixtures melted and fused into stalactites….One engine, part of the fuselage, and a landing gear tore through the internal office walls, through two fire walls and across a stairway, through another office wall and out of the south wall of the building, with the parts coming to a fiery rest at 10 West Thirty-Third Street in the penthouse studio/apartment of sculptor Henry Hering, who was off playing golf in Scarsdale at the time,"

John Tauranac, The Making of a Landmark, New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997, (originally printed in hardcover by Scribner, 1995).


2. The terrorist idea to crash a hijacked plane into Eiffel Tower, when an Air France airplane was hijacked in Algeria.

3. The ability of people, including the middle class, to commit a collective suicide (the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997, the mass suicide in Uganda  in 2000, and many other examples) because of their own vision of this or the other side.

4. The existence of a terrorist organization with strong will, abundant money, and a long series of escalating successes, including the World Trade Center bombing on 26th February 1993.

5. The well-known weakness of security at the American airports.

6. The realization of the impending danger, as Walter Laqueur saw it in his "Postmodern Terrorism: New Rules For An Old Game," (FOREIGN AFFAIRS - September/ October 1996).

The Bible says that when the Old Testament hero Samson brought down the temple, burying himself along with the Philistines in the ruins, "the dead which he slew at his death were more than he slew in his life." The Samsons of a society have been relatively few in all ages. But with the new technologies and the changed nature of the world in which they operate, a handful of angry Samsons and disciples of apocalypse would suffice to cause havoc. Chances are that of 100 attempts at terrorist super-violence, 99 would fail. But the single successful one could claim many more victims, do more material damage, and unleash far greater panic than anything the world has yet experienced. To this I would add:

Now the house was full of men and women; all the lords of the Philistines were there, and on the roof there were about three thousand men and women, who looked on while Samson made sport. (Judges, 15:27)

7. The saturation of our land and air with "powder kegs.”

In movies a shot into the powder keg often decides the outcome of the battle with pirates and other bad guys: they are blown into pieces by their own ammunition. 

Our civilization is filled with powder kegs charged with enormous energy: airplanes, moving cars, missiles, nuclear bombs and reactors, oil and gas storage facilities, tankers, and even tall buildings. Any skyscraper has enormous potential energy approximately measured by the half the product of its mass and height. It needs only a strong enough push to fall down and release the energy. For this reason alone it is not reasonable to build high.

One such powder keg was zeppelin, a blimp with a metal frame, filled with flammable hydrogen. The famous Hindenburg of Nazi Germany, adorned with swastikas, exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, after ten successful trans-Atlantic flights. Was it an anti-Nazi sabotage?

Although it spreads death, terrorism is a form of life. It evolves and adapts. When the entrance barriers are raised, instead of bringing weapons and ammunition into the target country, terrorism uses internal energy of the target and releases it to cause destruction. It shoots into its enemy's powder keg.

Events like September 11, WW1, WW2, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 happened simply because they could happen.   

    They can happen because they can be imagined.
    They happen with a significant probability if the transition barrier is low.
    They happen rarely if the barrier is high.
    They happen easier when the open liberal democracy lowers all barriers in principle.

Sometimes they cannot happen at all: the invention of a flying apparatus was improbable in Ancient Greece with all its intellectual potency even though the idea of a flying contraption had existed in the myth of Icarus. The mental image of a flying man had to wait for two millennia before the technology was propelled by the image

eapons of mass destruction were technically imagined long before they became reality:

Science fiction writers produced chemical weapons even earlier. In Jules Verne's The Begum's Fortune, a (German) scientist aims to wipe out the 250,000 inhabitants of (French) Franceville with one grenade of what he calls carbon  acid gas, shot from a supergun. (Walter Laqueur).  

: The Begum's Fortune (Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum) was published in 1879. Walter Laqueur was not quite correct. In the book, the city of Frankville was built in the USA.

My next point is that there is an obvious wall of a different kind: the wall between the experts and the politicians. As a recent example, I can mention the wall between our current climate and
global warming. It was not overcome because of the difference in the visions of the politicians and the scientists. The transition state is so high that the cost of the program could be enormous. The evidence of the man-made gloom on the other side was not quite convincing and the bright vision of the goal was not quite enticing.

I have no intent to go into politics and take sides on this subject. Nevertheless, there is a sad parallel between the global warming and the September 11 aftermath. Before the actual disaster nobody would spend that much money and effort on patching up the wall that could have separated us from the attack. There was a wall not so much between the experts and the politicians—I believe the politicians were concerned enough—as in the mentality of the potential voters who influence the decision of the politicians in a democracy. The politicians clearly saw that there was no chance to reach even half the hill.

What happened after September 11 was the sudden increase in the social temperature: the social warming. Our current agitated state now has a high energy and is unstable. In terms of physics, it is an excited state. In common language, it is unsafe, precarious, hazardous, risky, and shaky. The transition state does not seem as high as before and we (not all, though) are  anxious to pay the high price for erecting a wall on the way of future terrorists:


---------------------------------------Social warming-------------------------------------------

The same applies to the transition barrier toward suicide, as well as mass murder.

: The situation of internal conflict is known in social psychology as cognitive dissonance, see Essay 8, On the Buridan's Ass.  See also Essay 24, On Myself  on the topology of human relations.

The macabre other side of this hill can be made attractive by religious belief, and the Koran, with all its militant spirit, is not unique. Compare quotations:

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it." (Luke 9:24).

"And reckon not those who are killed in Allah's way as dead; nay, they are alive (and) are provided sustenance from their Lord." (Koran, 3:169).

As for: "O you who believe! do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people." (Koran, 5:51), the Crusaders, definitely, felt the same way toward the Muslims, although there was not a trace of Muslims in the Bible, for obvious reasons.

Religious texts do not prove anything. They could be interpreted in many ways and used to justify any gruesome deed.

I believe, basing on vast historical evidence, that the barrier toward mass murder of unarmed people is usually lowered by excluding the enemy from the category of true humans (Essay 24), and that was how the terrorists saw Americans. Faith can be murderous, whether sacred or secular, and religious extremism has always been a social powder keg. In the end, ideas kill on the larger scale than bullets.

I wish to repeat for the third time in these Essays that no idea is good or bad on its own. Any idea is evil if there is an unopposed violent force behind it.

Montaigne has a wonderful essay on anger.

No passion disturbs the soundness of our judgment as anger does.

 Montaigne, Essays, II, 31.

Montaigne writes that his own anger was as short as it was lively.

Anger makes people lose control. I made my worst decisions in life under the influence of anger. Looking back, I can see that my problem was that all my strong emotions, if they did not go away overnight, as most did,  were long-lasting, viscous, stagnant, all-consuming, and I had no chance of coming back to my normal state fast enough.

Aristotle says that choler sometimes serves virtue and valor as a weapon. That is most likely; nevertheless those who deny it have an amusing reply: it must be some new-fangled weapon; for we wield the other weapons: that one wields us; it is not our hand that guides it: it guides our hand; it gets a hold on us: not we on it.
      Montaigne, Essays, II, 31.

I can imagine how people's anger in the Middle East is being daily whipped up by the psychotic atmosphere of mutual hate and murder, so that even normal and reasonable people have no time for relaxation and coming back to their senses. But there could be additional reasons for educated people to plan mass murder in cold blood for years, especially, on European soil.

As a cynical believer in simple reasons, I look into the basement and not the loft of human motivation.

I believe that anger and despair increase the internal energy and, therefore, decrease the relative barrier toward making a pledge to give up one's life as an ultimate sacrifice. But once the pledge is given and life goes on, it is the shame under the tribal pressure that prevents reversing the decision. The managers of terrorism make such natural human fluctuations irreversible.

To keep one's word is a universal virtue. Loyalty is considered one of the moral pillars outside the modern Western culture, probably, as a compensation for the heavy pressure of wide spread actual betrayal.

When we bemoan (rarely) the loss of loyalty, we forget that betrayal has lost most of its practical impact in the individualistic society where everything seems expendable and disposable. Betrayal does not cost us our lives anymore. It is different in the authoritarian and tribal countries of the East where loyalty is precious because it is rare and is a matter of life and death for both sides.

The roster of political murder in the East is staggering. All the murdered Gandhis, related or not, are just one example, all the more striking because it was done in the culture of ahimsa, nonviolence.

Another basic instinct driving the techno-terrorists is, probably, just the fun of the game that glues the hacker to the computer keyboard, thief to his trade, scientist to his bench, writer to the sheet of paper, and politician to the microphone. Terrorism is creative.

Whether courageous or stupid, the suicidal terrorist is a miserable figure deserving compassion like any victim because there is always a mature spider safely hidden in a corner of his web who pulls the strings and pushes his own people over the edge of life. The laws of history demand we pay with human lives for any new quiet valley. I see a sad and ironic confirmation that the history has not yet changed despite the growing role of Things in it. We still must carry our stone on our bare back to the top of the hill, not knowing what expects us ahead.  Probably, there are even more Things there. We are not yet ready to swap Things for greener pastures.



1.  The complete English Bible contains about 750,000 words. The word kill is used 215 times.  The  Koran (complete text) contains about 168,000 words.  The table presents approximate occurrence of words kill and love in the texts.

Text Word count (approximate) kill one word per love one word per
Books of Moses 157,000 46 3400 47 3300
Gospels 90,000 64 1400 75 1200
Koran 168,000 44 3800 83 2000

2. June, 2002. More and more facts confirm that September 11 not only could be prevented but should have been.

Page created: 2001                                                     Revised: 2016

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