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The Social Impact Of Terrorism: A Human-Centered Perspective


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What is the social impact of terrorism?

As scholars, we like to approach issues of Homeland Security analytically. Analytically, of course, the social impact of terrorism is contingent upon a number of factors, especially:

1. The nature of weaponry involved (WMD terrorism vs. conventional terrorism);

2. The degree to which vulnerability is generally felt;

3. The actual vulnerability of people, structures, and institutions;

4. The extent of area affected (limited/localized attacks would likely elicit more efficient governmental response and recovery);

5. The capacity of society and government to react and recover (itself contingent upon many other factors); and

6. The actual and expected duration of terror.

But, candidly, we don’t have to get too analytical to understand that the social impact of terrorism is normally captured far better by poets than by the physicists or political scientists.

We may recall with benefit a famous poem by W.B. Yeats, with its grievously prophetic imagery of horror: “The blood dimmed tide is loosed/and everywhere the Ceremony of Innocence is drowned.”

Like Yeats, Bertolt Brecht was also right on the mark. Says Brecht:

“Truly I live in dark times… The man who laughs has simply not yet heard the terrible news.”

We, here in this Purdue University assembly this afternoon, HAVE heard the terrible news. We KNOW, with little hesitation, that mega-terror is already on the way, and that there is little that can be done to prevent it altogether. Whether it be a form of bio-terrorism and/or a “dirty bomb,” our enemies are dedicated to enlarging the “blood- dimmed tide,” and their capacities to carry this out are undeniably considerable.

Here in Indiana, at the Newport facility, there is enough stored VX nerve agent to literally kill or injure a staggering number of people (some scientists even speak of millions of possible casualties). How shall we extrapolate from such unimaginable levels of lethality to questions of “social impact?”

We seek answers to precisely this question this afternoon. We who are in the Homeland Security field must continue to look for viable remedies. We have no other choice.

As someone who has worked closely for almost a quarter-century with Israeli and American intelligence communities, I know that there ARE ways to deal with even the most barbarous forms of terrorism. But these ways have various unpalatable qualities, and are difficult at times to reconcile with democratic principles and the laws of war. Moreover, as we now face instances of WMD terror, the prospective costs of terrorism are so overwhelming that distasteful trade offs between individual liberties and public safety could become irresistible and altogether necessary.

For a brief look at the true human meaning of terrorism, we have distributed copies of an Op Ed piece that I wrote especially for The Jewish Press with Chicago-area radiologist Dr. Michael Messing. Please read it closely. For another, consider these comments from a physician friend of mine in Israel, Dr. Moshe Rosenblatt (a general surgeon) about one of his many encounters with the victims of suicide- bombing terrorism. These comments were written a few years ago, after one of many Palestinian terror attacks upon Israeli women and children:

“Dear Lou,

‘The terrorist attack took place at the other end of my street, some 800 meters from my building. I’ve been many times in this wedding hall, so I could easily have been one of the people there. I would be dead now, and/or my wife and children…. ‘Despite the fact that I’m the director of a surgical outpatient clinic, on these events I naturally always go to Hadera’s hospital to help my colleagues. That’s what I did today. I ran to the operating room where I entered into an almost heroic operation to save the life of a middle-aged woman. One of the terrorist bullets had ruptured her liver, stomach, bowels and major vessels. We couldn’t stop the bleeding. So we opened her chest to cross- clamp the aorta, while undertaking direct heart massage. All in vain. She died of massive hemorrhage; blood and feces were strewn everywhere.

‘I then changed my surgical clothes and entered another operating room to begin another operation. This time the patient was a young guy with an abdomen full of shrapnel. We had to resect the lower part of his ruptured large bowel, but ? at the end of the operation ? he was still bleeding profusely through his wounded hip. I left the room while the orthopedic surgeons began to operate on his right hip. I’m sure that he will also die.

‘Many other patients were treated by other surgeons. My surgical dress was covered in blood. I took a shower and here I am, at 4:00 in the morning, writing to you, my dear friend in Indiana. I just can’t sleep now. Although very tired, I’m too distraught because after all these years of seeing blood and death on my hands, I never quite get used to it.”

So here is what lies behind the news reports of terror; behind the sanitized statistics; behind the anesthetized and hermetically-sealed calculations of the scholars.

This report concerns a very “limited” instance of terrorism, at least relative to what we now face in both Israel and the United States. And this report is from a hardened battlefield surgeon. My friend Dr. Moshe Rosenblatt has stitched up countless torn bodies in three major wars.

(To be continued)

Copyright (c) The Jewish Press, 2004. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of ten major books and several hundred articles dealing with terrorism, war and international law. He has worked for over a quarter-century with American and Israeli counter-terrorism communities, and is current Chair of “Project Daniel,” advising Israel’s Prime Minister on nuclear security issues. His columns have appeared in such newspapers as “The New York Times”; “The Washington Post”; “USA Today”; “The Chicago Tribune”; “The Indianapolis Star”; “Haaretz” and “The Jerusalem Post.” Professor Beres is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press in New York City.

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About the Author: Louis René Beres, strategic and military affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, is professor of Political Science at Purdue University. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), he lectures and publishes widely on international relations and international law and is the author of ten major books in the field. In Israel, Professor Beres was chair of Project Daniel.


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