There was a massive line for security screening when I flew back from Las Vegas last August, probably 500 people or more, snaking around through rope barriers. What this snaking meant is that most of the people were clustered together in a relatively small area rather than spread out in a long line. Fortunately it moved quickly, though that's not my point. I started thinking, if I were some crazed suicide bomber, all I'd have to do is set off a powerful shrapnel bomb in the security line and I'd probably kill more people than if I actually brought down an airplane.
If you detonated a bomb in a security line -- or, worse, a Wal-Mart -- wouldn't the intrusion of terrorism into a more mundane context be all the scarier? In other words, would three Midwestern suicide bombers loom larger in the American mind than one wrecked plane? My hunch, for reasons I can't quite articulate, is no; that the placement of terror into more impressive contexts allows folks to misrepresent it in their own minds, where the impressions of everyday life are more entrenched and thus trickier to overturn.To which I say…
His hunch wrong. This is something I’ve thought a lot about, probably because I live in a medium-sized Midwestern city.
It would be very effective to strike Cub Foods or White Oaks Mall and their equivalents all over the country if your goal is to maximize terror throughout the land. Why? Because hitting high visibility targets lulls most of us to assume we are safe because we aren’t anywhere near something of any great importance. If random stores in smaller communities are hit, we can feel none of us are safe. So even if I’m living in Lincoln, Nebraska, I can relate to the terror if the Wal-Mart in Lincoln, Illinois is blown up. It’s transferable to a large portion of the population in a way that bringing down the Twin Towers is not. I’ve even heard ordinary citizens around here say as much. At a ballgame a couple years ago, a guy sitting behind me told his friend, “If the terrorists really want to scare us, they should start blowing up Wal-Marts”. That’s almost exactly what he said, Wal-Mart reference and all.
So why aren’t terrorists targeting local Wal-Marts? It’s not because it wouldn’t have the same disruptive economic impact as say a Sears Tower strike. No, when Americans stop shopping because they feel unsafe just going to the store, you have a real economic disaster.
The reason small targets aren’t being targeted is these acts would have little resonance with many international terrorists’ main constituency – the folks back home. Foreigners are way more familiar with the New York skyline than a suburban St. Louis department store.
To give a hypothetical, let’s say a large portion of Americans really, really hate France and what they view as an oppressive French empire. There is so much hatred that a few extremists decide they want to strike at France in some way. After all, our own government is doing nothing about these grievances and are, in the minds of the extremists, even in cahoots with the evil French.
Not possessing an army, the American extremists resort to terrorism. But where to strike with limited resources? The extremists, wanting not only to strike at the French empire but also gain notoriety and recruits at home, aren’t going to hit a vineyard outside of Lyon. No, they’re going to knock over the Eifel Tower or blow up the Arc de Triomphe because Americans recognize those things and associate them with France. This would piss-off the French, of course, but I doubt the average citizen of that country would feel unsafe or “terrorized”.
If the above scenario sounds familiar, it’s because that’s exactly what has happened but with the U.S. being the target of extremists.