Third Wave Terrorism Rides the Tokyo Subway
Alvin Toffler is author with Heidi Toffler of Future Shock, The Third Wave, Powershift, and, most recently, War and Anti-War, a study of the effects of the information age on warfare. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels after the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway.
NPQ: The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was renewed this year, yet, as the sarin chemical attack in the Tokyo subway has shown, weapons of mass destruction are no longer just the province of state-vs-state war or subject to regulation by treaty.
Has a new form of warfare arisen in the information age that eludes control by the state? Soon, any apocalyptic nut or sect with a laboratory will be able to access a lethal formula through the Internet, build a weapon and hold entire societies hostage.
ALVIN TOFFLER: What we've seen in Japan is the ultimate devolution of power: the demassification of mass-destruction weapons. No longer is it only the state that can possess such weapons on behalf of the "masses" in its territory; now a mere individual or small group can possess the means of mass destruction - if he or she has the information to make them. And that information is increasingly available.
The Sarin attack in Japan was qualitatively different from the old forms of terrorism that cause havoc but kill or maim only 30 or 50 people. Remember that this Japanese attack was very crude - a briefcase, bag or box left on the subway train. When a greater sophistication evolves on the part of terrorists in the use of chemical and biological weapons, including remote detonation devices for binary weapons, thousands upon thousands of people can be felled in one blow.
This is a momentous development because it signals, as you suggest, the failure of the state system itself, which was founded on the ability of the governing elite, or the gang in power as the case may be, to enforce its authority with organized violence and to control alternative means of violence, no less mass violence, in its own territory.
This doesn't mean the end of the nation state, as some suggest, but that it will become just one player among many others of relatively comparative power in varying realms. As the power of the state fragments, the number of players is multiplying- all of whom are potentially capable of laying their hands on weaponry.
In addition to commanding the means of violence, historically the state had fiscal command and control over its currency and market. It also controlled knowledge - whether through religion, ideology or mythology.
A state may well have all or some of these attributes today, but there are counterforces that also have these attributes that are outside the control of any state. These stateless counterforces range from the global currency and bond markets to the Internet and CNN or MTV, from the Catholic Church to worldwide religious sects, narco-traffickers, international civilian organizations like Greenpeace and globe-spanning ethnic networks.
If you lose control of violence, wealth and knowledge, you've lost power. That is the power shift that has diminished the state and to which the sarin attack in Japan adds yet another blow.
But the state will still have importance - particularly in providing socially necessary order against the kind of attack we saw in the Tokyo subway.
NPQ: So, here are the components of "third wave" warfare, or terrorism in the information age: scientific prowess in the form of development of deadly chemical and biological warfare as well as the unlocked secrets of the atom; a broad, global pool of people with graduate-level education in the sciences; access to lethal knowledge-and free societies organized to defend against enemy or rogue states, but not rogue individuals or small groups among their own population.
TOFFLER: Yes, and this emergent reality poses a particular problem for democratic societies. If a state can use overwhelming force and repression, it can probably crush any threat within its territory, at least for a certain period of time. But democratic societies limit that kind of use of power by the state.
The rise of stateless violence threatens not just repressive states but the socially necessary order of democratic societies. I have no doubt that there will arise in response to these acts of violence a great deal of sympathy among the average population to monitor anyone considered potentially dangerous.
Will democratic states then begin monitoring cults, or for that matter religions in general, or other organizations like Greenpeace or any ethnic group that hails from a troubled homeland? What will that mean for freedom and pluralism?
NPQ: Something else you have written about makes us more vulnerable than in the past to terrorist attacks like the one in the Tokyo subway or, with ordinary bombs, at the World Trade Center in New York or the federal building in Oklahoma City: In complex, interdependent systems with airports, 747s, Eurotunnels, skyscrapers and subway systems - a small intervention can be leveraged into a mass disaster.
TOFFLER: As the scientist Ilya Prigogine has noted, when a system becomes what he describes as "far from equilibrium" it loses any linear relationship between cause and effect. In such a condition of disequilibrium, a small input can produce a disproportionately large effect.
This means politically that small groups or grouplets that choose to disrupt a society can do so massively, especially when their power is magnified though possession of lethal knowledge. To the extent that mass politics has seen its day, as I believe it has, there will be a proliferation of small congregations of people all trying to make their mark, some with violence. The Aurn Supreme Truth sect in Japan has only something like 5,000 members in all of Japan.
NPQ: So, in the future, we must all live in the fear of some kook with a beef?
TOFFLER: All of us today live with a kind of freefloating fear in the background of our lives. This makes me think of the way that Paleolithic humans lived in ancient times when they knew nothing about the external world. They had no reliable information, no scientific knowledge. Everything was uncertain. People were afraid of trees, stones and the sun.
Today, it seems, we are heading back toward living constantly with that kind of anxiety.
NPQ: Talk about a deep irony - our anxiety today about an insecure environment comes not from ignorance, but from the wide dispersion of information, including lethal knowledge!
What can be done?
TOFFLER: First of all, everything will have its distinct signature and we will have tools that can monitor their use. In the future every product is going to be bar coded and identified. Every canister of chemicals will have an ID number that will be readable, perhaps even detectable from a satellite.
So, levels of surveillance - of goods as well as people - will rise, though you cannot, of course, see what is in the minds of people.
Moreover, as we move toward electronic money, we will be able to track all transactions. Even today your credit card record will reveal where you had dinner, breakfast or lunch. In the future, it will take much more sophistication to hide the flow of money and the use of goods.
On the other hand, I believe, all communications are inevitably going to be encrypted. There is already a race on between the code-makers and the codebreakers.
The encryption issue also involves a re-evaluation of the way we have looked at freedom of information. Reasonable people who believe in freedom of information have recognized that a certain modicum of secrecy by the state, until now, slowed proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The question is: To what degree will it be possible to control information in the future in ways that will stop the spread of these chemical and biological weapons that are more easily manufactured? The answer is that it will be very, very difficult.
Though I lean toward a libertarian view on the free availability of information, I cannot simply brush aside the concerns of the FBI or INTERPOL that the inability to control the spread of certain information can lead to the mass murder of innocent people.
The stakes are larger than they have ever been. It is one thing to say we don't like big government and we don't want Big Brother looking over our shoulder. But do we like the alternative of a world where the most ruthless and most depraved can gain access to the means of mass destruction, apply them, and get way with it?