Another day, another vigil.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Getty Images

Orlando Shows Us Our Very Scary Future

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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“I will say one thing,” Kevin Drum writes about the tragedy in Orlando. “There is a big difference between an attack coordinated and carried out by a foe (Pearl Harbor, Pan Am 103, 9/11, Paris, etc.) and an attack by a lunatic who was inspired by something or other (fame, hatred of blacks, Islamist ideology, etc.). The former is either terrorism or an act of war and the latter is an act of psychosis -- and while it may be politically handy to conflate the two, it does nothing to fight either one.”

I understand his point, and it’s not wrong. When such atrocities occur, there is a tendency on both sides of the political spectrum to try to shoehorn people who are just sort of crazy into membership of a group they are worried about in order to inflate the threat and get other people interested in stopping it. Often you really have to grease that shoehorn in order to make the description kinda-sorta fit. This clouds the discussion instead of improving it.

But I’m not sure his point is quite right, either. Ten years ago, it made sense to draw clear lines between organized political violence (like Sept. 11) and lone crazy people (like the disturbed man who flew a plane into a Texas IRS office). But organized political violence is becoming decentralized, disintermediated -- much like organized politics in general. For example, Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter have used the power of the internet to tap into political disaffection among groups who feel marginalized by the current debate, spurring those people into action without having to utilize the organized and hierarchical networks that historically mediated such action. The same sort of tools that have been used to mobilize people for largely peaceful political action can also be used to mobilize people for terror -- call it disorganized political violence.

Of course I am not comparing either Donald Trump supporters or Black Lives Matter to Islamic State, nor am I suggesting that they are in any way morally equivalent or dangerous. (This ought to go without saying, but on the internet, it never does.) The fact that the Allies and the Nazis both had tanks does not mean that they were somehow morally equivalent; however, it remains true that once tanks were introduced, warfare changed for everyone, whether you were one of the Good Guys or the Bad Guys. We seem to now be at this point with Islamic State. What that means bears thinking about, and those thoughts are frightening.

Not long after the 9/11 attacks, blogger Steven Den Beste noted that while everyone was freaking out about bombs and nuclear plants and poisoning of the main reservoir that serves New York City, these threats were actually not the biggest risks that we faced. (For example, I asked my father, who served as the city’s first Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, about the reservoir; he said they had actually analyzed this risk during his tenure and concluded that the massive fleet of chemical tanker trucks that would be necessary to carry out such an attack would probably be noticed long before they were able to do any significant damage.) The biggest risk was that terrorists would figure out how easy it was to carry out low-level attacks that would be nearly impossible to defend against. Den Beste shared with me his best candidate for an easy-to-do, hard-to-defend attack, and to this day I remain both haunted by the possibility and mildly surprised that no one has tried it. (I am not going to share it here, for obvious reasons.)

Over the years since, I have asked experts why we don’t see more of those sorts of attacks. To summarize their collective responses: You have to think of a terror attack as having multiple audiences. First, there are the people you are trying to terrorize. Second, there are the people you are trying to recruit to carry out more terror attacks. And third, there are the people you want to give you money to finance your attacks. The first group can be terrorized by any number of means. But the second and third groups are most drawn to attacks that are grand in scale and paramilitary in tactics, and they are most impressed by attacks on high technology, such as airplanes, and famous buildings, such as the World Trade Center. Thus, terrorists do less overall damage than they could, because they spend a lot of energy attacking well-known targets that are fairly hardened.

But there has always been a danger that as the well-known targets became more hardened, those tactics would shift. We saw that in Paris, where the attack on the stadium largely failed but the attack on the nightclub largely succeeded -- and will undoubtedly inspire imitation. We have arguably seen it here in the U.S., even before the Orlando attack, as the Beltway shooters killed 10 people who were simply going about their day. We have seen it in Israel, where there was a spate of people ramming cars into crowds. As the latter example suggests, people who found it hard to get explosives shifted to harnessing the large, destructive energy of a piece of advanced equipment that most of you use to get to work every day.

The internet and social media enable this. If a planned attack is simple enough, you no longer need a network for training, financing and organizing terrorists; all you need is the propaganda to inspire them and a means for them to self-identify as fighting for your cause. Thirty years ago, that would have meant physical contacts, printed materials, a slow and painstaking dissemination of information through networks that were vulnerable to penetration by law enforcement. Now all you need is an internet connection and some inexpensive electronic equipment.

Many of the people this attracts will be unstable, even ideologically incoherent. There has never been a fine, bright line between “sane people who join violent extremist groups” and “raving madmen”; what differentiated them was their membership in a collective group (which expelled the most unstable people, because their mental health issues made them too unreliable).

As these networks decentralize to the point where few members are dependent on the others, the fairly reasonable line we once drew threatens to become meaningless. And our lives threaten to become much more scary.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net