June/July/Aug 2007

Ignition Switch

A pair of histories show the unprecedented effects of two technologies of terror.

Jonathan Shainin


In the files of the Atlas Group, an “imaginary foundation” co-created and administered by the Lebanese artist Walid Raad “whose purpose is to collect, produce, and archive documents of the Lebanese civil wars,” there are nearly one hundred black-and-white photographs chronicling the wreckage of a fraction of the 3,641 car bombs set off in Lebanon between 1975 and 1991. “The only part that remains intact after a car bomb explodes is the engine,” Raad writes in the introduction to My Neck Is Thinner than a Hair (2005). “Landing on balconies, roofs or adjacent streets, the engine is projected tens and sometimes hundreds of meters away from the original site of the bomb.” The photographs depict not the grisly crime scenes, splayed bodies, and bloodied streets but rather the helpless aftermaths of these punctual murders; men stand around the hulks of destroyed vehicles, some of them still aflame. The inert shells of twisted metal, harmless, only hint at the carnage the photographers have failed to capture.

It is natural that Raad has seized on the car bomb as the defining element of the wars that ruined Lebanon, for no place—until recently—has been so brutally terrorized by the simple but unstoppable power of the rolling bomb, whose deployment has tended to alter decisively the conflicts it accelerates and inflames and to reshape the cities and urban spaces terrorized by its use. “The car bomb,” Raad writes, “is a weapon, a technology, an event, and a form of discourse that has shaped public life in Lebanon for the past 30 years.”

“Like any triumphant modern technology,” Mike Davis writes at the start of Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, the device “deserves its proper history.” Davis’s contemplation of the bomb is the third book in what one might call his Slum Trilogy, which takes as its jumping-off point what he describes as “a watershed in human history,” an “epochal transition” whereby the urban population of the earth now outnumbers the rural. The countrysides have ceased to grow—or have been invaded by urbanization— while the teeming masses in the cities are projected to swell by two billion bodies in the next forty years or so, with 95 percent of this expansion set to occur in the developing world. Planet of Slums (2006) essays the status of the rapidly multiplying ranks of neo–slum dwellers, an agglomeration of humanity cut off from the global economy, segregated into marginal living spaces on urban peripheries in which an “architecture of fear” divides islands of wealth from oceans of poverty. The Monster at Our Door (2005) describes in vivid detail the looming worldwide threat of a “mutant influenza of nightmarish virulence,” one adaptation away from traveling at “pandemic velocity through a densely urbanized and mostly poor humanity.” A series of man-made environmental shocks, Davis alleges, among them the growth of megaslums, has turned “influenza’s extraordinary Darwinian mutability into one of the most dangerous biological forces on our besieged planet.”

To Davis, the car bomb is another disease, let loose in an ecosystem of violence, incubating in the same slums as the flu: “Like an implacable virus,” he writes, “once vehicle bombs have entered the DNA of a host society and its contradictions, their use tends to reproduce indefinitely.” The migration of rural populations into cities, he wrote in a 2004 Social Text article, has “urbanized” conflict in the developing world: Where the countryside was the traditional redoubt of anticolonial insurgencies (which were often easily put down by the merciless application of air power), today’s counterinsurgents are faced with a ramshackle maze of urban slums. “If the point of the war against terrorism is to pursue the enemy into his sociological and cultural labyrinth,” he writes, “then the poor peripheries of developing cities will be the permanent battlefields of the twenty-first century.” On these battlefields, it is safe to assume—and the example of Baghdad is a chilling one—the car bomb will be the weapon of choice.

Davis credits the first car bomb—actually a horse-drawn-wagon bomb—to a “vengeful Italian immigrant anarchist” named Mario Buda, who in September 1920 blew up a cart packed with explosives and iron slugs on Wall Street following the arrest of his friends Sacco and Vanzetti, killing forty people and wounding more than two hundred in the course of bringing “unprecedented terror to the inner sanctum of American capitalism.” Buda’s invention would see some refinement in the decades to follow, but the basic idea was present at creation: the “use of an inconspicuous vehicle, anonymous in almost any urban setting, to transport large quantities of high explosive into precise range of a highvalue target.”

Buda’s anarchist forebears sang prosaic hymns to dynamite, whose invention seemed to herald a new equilibrium of power between individuals and states; Albert Parsons, one of the men (wrongly) found guilty of the Haymarket bombing, proclaimed at the trial that “dynamite is the diffusion of power. It is democratic; it makes everybody equal. . . . Nothing can meet it. The Pinkertons, the police, the militia, are absolutely worthless in the presence of dynamite. . . . It is the equilibrium. It is the annihilator. It is the disseminator of power. It is the downfall of oppression.” Parsons, who had not himself handled the stuff, noted that “the dynamite bomb, I am told, costs six cents. It can be made by anybody. The Winchester rifle costs eighteen dollars.”

The car bomb, too, has failed to bring about the downfall of oppression, but it has surpassed dynamite’s deadly promise as an equalizer. Car bombs are shockingly cheap to manufacture, simple to organize and deploy, difficult to detect and prevent, and impossible to ignore. The two most famous such explosions on American soil—the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center by Ramzi Yousef and the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh—together killed nearly two hundred people and inflicted more than a billion dollars in economic damage. Each sent shock waves across the nation, and each cost less than five thousand dollars.

Mario Buda’s primitive wagon bomb lay buried like a fossil for decades, until it was excavated in the late 1940s by Jewish terrorists in Mandatory Palestine. The followers of Avram Stern—led by future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir—were the “first to improvise vehicle bombs as a sustained tactic,” initially against British forces in Palestine in an effort to “sabotage a truce between the British and the mainstream Zionists” and then against Palestinian civilians. Battlefield deployment showcased the stunning power and severe limitations of the tactic: You can raze a building and spill some blood, but you can’t exactly win a war with trucks full of dynamite. You can, however, destroy a peace, sabotage a truce, terrorize civilians, and escalate a conflict. Indeed, what Davis calls the “hellish innovation” of the Stern Gang was quickly “franchised to the other side,” as Palestinians launched their own exploding trucks against Jewish installations. The car bomb, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s trenchant description of nationalism, “proved an invention on which it was impossible to secure a patent. It became available for pirating by widely different, and sometimes unexpected, hands.”

In Davis’s account, the evolution of the car bomb exhibits a kind of punctuated equilibrium: The innovations are rare but abrupt, and their spread is concomitantly rapid and devastating. Buda’s Wagon is a compendium of meticulous rubbernecking, a dizzy helter-skelter through a century’s worth of corpses burned beyond recognition. It could be the script for some Michael Bay–Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster, a catastrophic fireball on nearly every page. Amid the oceans of shattered glass and the sidewalks littered with twisted metal and bloody limbs, a few signal moments in the technological and tactical development of the “poor man’s air force” emerge. The critical technological innovation was made by some “angry student radicals” at the University of Wisconsin in 1969, after they read a pamphlet, produced by the state Fish and Game Department and explaining how farmers could blast craters for duck ponds, that contained the recipe for a powerful explosive made from common ingredients: ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil. Their target was an army-funded think tank located in a campus building, outside of which they left a stolen Ford Econoline van (the same make later parked under the World Trade Center by Yousef) filled with nearly a ton of what would henceforth be known as anfo—equivalent to thirty-four hundred sticks of dynamite—that they had purchased for forty-eight dollars. The blast destroyed a wall of the army building, killed a physicist working late in a separate lab, and damaged two dozen surrounding buildings.

It was an auspicious debut, and before long, the Provisional IRA was putting anfo to more serious use on the streets of Belfast. Like the nineteenth-century anarchists, the “Provos” were intoxicated by the astonishing power of their explosives, blinded by an “almost cargo-cult-like belief in the capacity of car bombs to turn the tide of battle” to the damage mass car bombings were inflicting on the legitimacy of Republicanism. On July 21, 1972—soon to be remembered as Bloody Friday—they unleashed the first fertilizer-powered multiple-car bombing, leaving twenty-two armed vehicles at the periphery of the now-gated Belfast city center, killing seven civilians and two soldiers and wounding more than one hundred and thirty.

The bombs of Bloody Friday led British authorities to tighten the “ring of steel” surrounding downtown Belfast. Indeed, alongside the increasing power of vehicle-borne explosives runs a complementary narrative of urban retrenchment. A series of spectacular Viet Cong bombings in Saigon between 1963 and 1966 struck protected American targets, including the embassy and various hotels housing troops—the resulting countermeasures prompting local residents to dub the Americans “big monkeys” for retreating behind “huge wire nettings, resembling cages.” Thereafter, Robert McNamara evacuated the bulk of American operations in Saigon to a “vast, self-contained ‘military suburb’” that anticipated both the Baghdad Green Zone and the walled refuges soon to contain the wealthy in the world’s most dangerous cities. “It is the car bombers’ incessant blasting-away at the moral and physical shell of the city,” Davis claims, “that is producing the most significant mutations in city form and urban lifestyle.” Just as the car itself transformed the contemporary city, the car bomb has furthered the ongoing refashioning of urban geography into an archipelago of heavily guarded fortresses, embodying what Davis once called a “riot tectonics” that “episodically convulses and reshapes urban space.”

Past retrenchments, however, did not end the threat of the car bomb. Instead, they merely prodded the final and most devastating leap in its evolution, as engineered by the Shiite bombers of Hezbollah, who tweaked the formula by leaving the driver inside the car, allowing kamikazes to penetrate the lobbies and courtyards of gated American facilities, where they detonated bombs so massive they lifted buildings right off the ground. Beirut had already been shattered by car bombs—Davis suggests that in the 1970s and ’80s, the city was “to the technology of urban violence what a tropical rainforest is to the evolution of plants and insects”—but the Hezbollah attacks, which drove American forces from Lebanon in 1984, were a new demonstration of the car bomb’s power and inflicted what Davis calls a “stunning geopolitical defeat, as well as the worst setback for the Western powers in the Arab world since the victory of the Algerian revolution.”

The car bomb had made its power clear, and indeed, as Davis argues, before long even strong states began to call in the poor man’s air force. The CIA responded to Hezbollah’s provocation by sending a Datsun pickup truck loaded with explosives (and vegetables) to the home of the Hezbollah leader Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah; he was untouched, but the bomb killed eighty civilians, many of them women and girls exiting a nearby mosque. Among the car bomb’s many seductive qualities is the lack of forensic evidence it leaves behind, leading Davis to call it “the most popular clandestine instrument of terror employed by strong governments and superpowers.” The list of state entities that have “caused unspeakable carnage” with car bombs is not a short one. Davis cites the British SAS, the Soviet KGB, the Israeli Mossad, the Syrian GSD, the Lebanese “Foreign Work and Analysis Unit,” the Iranian Pasdaran, and the Pakistani ISI.

No entity or movement has had a monopoly on the car bomb, and Buda’s Wagon is an elegant proof that terrorism, however it is carried out, is ultimately a tactic rather than an ideology. Davis’s detailed history confirms that the car bomb is not David’s slingshot: In Algeria, white settlers employed car bombs in a war of revenge against French forces and Algerian locals in 1962; in Sicily, mafiosi destroyed one another with Alfa Romeos in the 1960s and declared war on Italian cultural treasures in the 1990s, using Fiats to attack the Uffizi Gallery and La Scala; and in Colombia, Pablo Escobar sent a flotilla of bombs into the streets to terrorize the state and prevent his extradition. No matter who sets them off, Davis writes, “the car bomb, when all is said and done, is an inherently fascist weapon guaranteed to leave its perpetrators awash in the blood of innocents.”

If the present is any indication, the car bomb is also the weapon of tomorrow; the relentless daily tally of the dead in Iraq—where “the car bomb is king,” as the title of one military analyst’s position paper has it—indicates, in Davis’s words, that “the car bomb probably has a brilliant future.” (Davis, nothing if not an enthusiastic prognosticator, has also augured that the “slums, however deadly and insecure, have a brilliant future” and that “pandemic influenza and other deadly infections have a brilliant future.”)

• • • • •

Like its more potent cousin, the suicide bomb has its own distinctive history, which has been retailed in a rapidly growing pile of books with hard-boiled titles (Dying to Win, Dying to Kill, My Life Is a Weapon, and so on). Both are archetypal “weapons of the weak,” designed to inflict maximum damage with minimum expense against a powerful enemy and to probe out the weak spots in a heavily fortified city or country.

But while the car bomb can do great damage to property and the global economy—as in the IRA bombings of London in 1992–93, which inflicted few casualties but almost brought the global insurance industry to its knees—the sole function of a suicide bomb is to kill people, be they civilians or soldiers. In his slender but intricate treatise On Suicide Bombing, Talal Asad cites the military historian John Keegan, who describes the evolution of our means of killing:

Weapons have never been kind to human flesh, but
the directing principle behind their design has usually
not been that of maximizing the pain and damage they
can cause. . . . But the rise of “thing-killing” as opposed
to man-killing weapons—heavy artillery is an
example—which by their side-effects inflicted gross
suffering and disfigurement, invalidated these restraints.
As a result restraints were cast to the winds, and it is
now a desired effect of many man-killing weapons
that they inflict wounds as terrible and as terrifying
as possible
.

Davis likens the car bomb to aerial bombing or heavy artillery—Keegan’s “thing-killing” weapons—while the suicide bomb exemplifies the present-day man killer, stripped of all restraint. Jeffrey W. Lewis, a historian of technology, argues in a recent issue of the journal Terrorism and Political Violence that the suicide bomb is not merely a tactic but a “control technology,” akin to the guidance systems that steer today’s high-tech smart bombs. While military forces like our own have, at great cost, developed weapon systems that imitate human intelligence to locate targets, the suicide bomb has been a “cost-effective alternative” for poor militants, replacing expensive technological systems with actual humans: “using people,” Lewis writes, “to mimic the characteristics of the most advanced weapons of their adversaries—weapons that of course were designed to mimic people in the first place.” The suicide bomb is even cheaper than the car bomb, so long as one places a sufficiently low price on the life of its delivery mechanism. But while the horror of the car bomb derives from its immense destructive capability, the suicide bomb represents an additional existential nightmare, the threat of an assailant who will take his own life in order to murder others.

The taboo of suicide, in peace or in war, invites our prurient fascination, and the suicide bomb has naturally been the subject of much attention. Though Davis makes a convincing case for the car bomb as the urban killer of the future, the suicide bomb has obsessed the media at least since the start of the second Palestinian intifada. It is a far sexier topic—inviting all manner of cultural, religious, and psychological speculation— than something so mundane as a Toyota filled with TNT. This fascination is the real subject of Asad’s provocative study, whose title is therefore slightly misleading. Asad is less interested in suicide bombing per se than in the arguments we have about it, the particular horror it inspires, and our attempts to construct explanations for seemingly incomprehensible acts.

Accounts of suicide bombing, Asad notes, “tend to focus on the origin of motivation.” We reach instinctively for explanation because the act of suicide is abhorrent a priori; the motivation for same is thus typically construed in pathological terms, drawing on ideas about the sickness of Islamic society or the alienation or repression of its young men. Asad writes that the motives of suicides are “inevitably fictions that justify our responses but that we cannot verify.” Even when a videotaped testimony by the bomber exists, he contends, it is only a “highly ritualized proclamation” that should not be “taken to correspond to his real motives.”

From a strategic perspective, of course, the increase in suicide attacks is a simple matter that requires neither reference to an “Islamic culture of death” nor psychological profiles: The tactic is popular because it is monstrously effective. It produces maximum impact with minimum cost to the attacking side; one frequently cited State Department study notes that while suicide attacks represented 3 percent of all terrorist attacks in 2005, they caused 20 percent of fatalities.

This rationale has not dispelled the conventional wisdom in the West that suicide attacks represent a special (and specifically Islamic) kind of evil—above and beyond the familiar evil of terrorism—that “threatens all civilization,” in the somewhat hysterical phrasing of Thomas Friedman. But, Asad counters, all of our attempts to “distinguish between morally good and morally evil ways of killing . . . are beset with contradictions.” Rather than violence or morality, he wants to discuss those contradictions—the means by which we subdivide and classify violence. Such divisions, as he implies, may often be specious, but this does not, however, make them unnecessary. His aim, in any case, is not to excuse violence or generate illusions of moral equivalence (though he sometimes walks close to that fine line), but simply to strip from terrorism the metaphysical obfuscation in which commentators have swaddled it. It is a worthy undertaking—and considering the tenor of the moment, the Augean stables might have been easier to clean—but what remains is not entirely satisfying. Asad forswears any attempt at definition in order to unsettle our certainties about its possibility, and On Suicide Bombing quickly leaves terrorism behind to pursue an epistemological inquiry into discourse on terrorism.

Efforts to define terrorism with precision are invariably torturous, and at present it seems we must be resigned to something akin to Potter Stewart’s famous nondefinition of pornography. In this vein, and at the risk of cynicism, one might say that terrorism is the name given to violent acts with which the namer disagrees—those intended to advance belief systems one finds alien or malignant. In his introduction, Asad asks a clever rhetorical question: What is religious about the motives of Islamic terrorism?—its aim, like regular terrorism’s, is simply to kill people, destroy property, and sow fear. Asad’s account suggests that terrorism can be seen as violence to which some surplus intent or meaning is added—in this case, religious motivation—just as suicide attacks, he theorizes, differ from plain vanilla terrorism by virtue of some supplemental horror.

In searching for the source of this extra horror, Asad turns scrutiny of terror back on itself—he feels that typical explanations of suicide attacks, which chase the inaccessible motivations of their perpetrators, “tell us more about liberal assumptions of religious subjectivities and political violence than they do about what is being explained.” The horror, he suggests, contains a clue to some particular elements of liberal Western sensibility, above all the illusion that “the problem of politics is radically separate from the problem of violence and that it is the primary task of the state to exclude violence from the arena of politics and confine it to the domain of war”—a separation that requires, and is enabled by, the creation of a boundary between legitimate and illegitimate violence.

Asad’s answers tend to be less important than his questions, but he argues convincingly that politics and violence are not so easily separated as we might like to imagine. As that old Clausewitzian saw suggests, the line that separates war from politics has never been a clear one. Today, in the age of terror and counterterror, it is all but invisible.

Jonathan Shainin is on the staff of the New Yorker. He is editor, with Roane Carey, of The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press, 2002).

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