The prediction forecast by a cult leader that this past Saturday would be a day of doom for Tokyo mercifully proved false. But after the recent 11-death nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, no one can ever be sanguine again about the doomsday potential that terrorism represents. The world has been shown to be vulnerable to mass murder at the hands of capricious fanatics.
It is a lesson being taught around the world, and the worst may be yet to come. Had the New York World Trade Center bombers known more about architecture and explosives, for example, they could have brought down the twin towers and killed more than 50,000 people.
The forms of terror are highly varied, running from small groups of fanatics to the mass violence among ethnic rivals. The common themes in such blood-letting are especially discouraging to anyone who thought human beings might advance beyond mayhem as the vehicle for political and cultural discourse. Victims are frequently little more than bystanders. In an alarming number of cases, terrorists accept suicide as necessary to the delivery of death.
The objective is not solely obliteration of human life, but the shattering of social and political structure as well. In Chechnya, Bosnia, Rwanda, Algeria, the Sudan, destruction reaches across wide bands of society. Perhaps most disturbing is the number of cases in which government itself becomes complicit.
Saddam Hussein’s willingness to expose all of Iraq to stern retaliation for his mindless invasions of Iran and Kuwait betokens a regime that, were it to possess nuclear weapons on even the smallest scale, might deploy them heedless of the response from the rest of the world.
The proliferation of highly destructive weaponry and the means of delivery; the vulnerability of complex urban systems to disruption; the impossibility of absolute control over the movement of potentially hostile persons; the impulse to wreak havoc at whatever the cost — all spell more trouble ahead. Tokyo escaped last weekend. The problem did not go away.