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American Diplomacy
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August 2003

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Chaos and the Threat to World Peace

Chaos theory, this editor has learned, is the qualitative study in mathematics and physics of unstable, non periodic behavior in deterministic nonlinear active systems. So there you have it. Chaos, then, is a state of uncertainty in a system that does not permit accurate prediction.

What’s going on with the terrorist attacks in the Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia seem to fall into that category—if we modify the definition to cover events in the nonscientific world of peoples and governments. The campaign of terrorism must have as its explanation some variant form of political chaos theory. Terrorism long has been the tactic of “outs” who are weak but who have political ideas that they expect to implement if they can create enough instability in the existing political system to implement their programs. As just one example of many, the Socialist Revolutionaries sought chaos in Tsarist Russia by the assassination of leading government figures. If there was “collateral damage” (a phrase not yet coined in that period), too bad: it was all in the cause of toppling the extant political order. From the resultant chaos would arise a new system, a new order.

In some respects and some instances, the continuing bombings perpetrated by terrorists recently can be explained fairly readily: Certain Palestinian elements flatly do not want a Palestinian state to be established co-existing with Israel; the bombing of foreign-owned high-profile targets in Indonesia perhaps expresses a “Yankee, go home” message.

Other violence, such as the truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and the Jordanian embassy defies ready explanation, given that the bombers are with little doubt Muslims, adherents of al Qaeda or an allied group. In the instance of the Jordanian embassy, the terrorists inflicted death and destruction on the diplomatic office of a fellow-Arab nation, this soon after Jordan had extended asylum to two daughters of Saddam Hussein. The bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq was an attack on an international group that had instituted sanctions against the previous Iraqi regime; the UN, however, could have been viewed as a counterbalance to the U. S. presence, another international entity not especially in sympathy with American initiatives in that conquered land.

The two massive al Qaeda-organized or -sponsored attacks recently in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, do not seem to have a convincing rationale, given the harm done to Indonesians.

Is it an effort to induce chaos, then? Maybe that serves as well as any other explanation, at least in several of the terrorist campaigns of late. As Marc Nicholson notes in his thoughtful “Essay on Terrorism” in the current American Diplomacy:

Terrorists who lash out from hatred but without concrete and achievable political goals, including those whose political goals are so sweeping as to be delusional. . . are practically, if not philosophically, nihilists with nowhere to go.

And what about practitioners of chaotic measures with—if not nowhere to go—no clearly defined destination? It would seem the statement would hold with respect to some of the violence being perpetrated recently.

The definition of terrorism is slippery, however.. Indeed, it has no generally accepted, all-encompassing definition. About as close as we can come to a meaning, probably, is the language of the U. S. government used since 1983 for the purpose of compiling statistics: Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

Even this relatively clear statement of meaning ignores the apparent phenomenon of chaos—violence perpetrated to bring down an established order, whether basically neutral or even friendly toward the terrorists’ aim. Thus a new kind of chaos theory, one that we’re witnessing in the second half of 2003.


Past editorials can be found here.

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