I became a student of international terrorism in the 1980s. Not to be a terrorist, but to try to understand it.
Before that, I had little or no understanding of it. I’d seen reports of terrorism on television as a teenager and as a young woman, but those instances were far away from my home and my life.
The terrorists of those times had names like Bader Meinhof and the Red Brigade; terrorists heinously killed athletes at the Munich Olympics; they opened fire in the airport in Rome and they hijacked airplanes now and then. There was the terrible Lockerbie airliner bombing. The word “Belfast” triggered nothing in me but a vague sadness and anger because two branches of the same religion in pretty, green Ireland seemed to have forgotten, on both sides, that the Christ both claimed to believe in had only exhorted them to pursue peace and love their neighbors, not to practice violence and hatred.
It was bewildering. In the America I lived in, pre-1986, terrorism was a fairly remote issue. It wasn’t given much in-depth coverage in the news at the time, and to be honest, I had little interest in the news anyway.
That changed when my military husband got orders to Germany.
Still, we were going there during a time of relative quiet, terrorism-wise. There hadn’t been an attack anywhere in Europe in several years; I told myself that really, there was nothing to be concerned about. I’ve always been a pragmatic sort.
Upon arriving at Heathrow International Airport outside of London, we had a layover of several hours. Excited about being in another country for the first time, my little family and I spent most of those heady hours wandering the duty-free shops, getting our American dollars changed into a few British pounds so we could purchase souvenirs of our very short stay in Merrie Olde England and check out the odd English food in the food courts. I still have the bone china mug with the Herrod’s logo on it that I purchased there that day.
But the threat of terrorism, while vague, was all around us at Heathrow. Everywhere I looked, there were signs that warned travelers not to leave their baggage unattended for any reason — and not to ask strangers to watch it for them, either.
The reason, of course, was that an unattended bag could potentially contain a bomb. The kind stranger you asked to watch your bag could well be a thief – or far worse, a terrorist who’d think nothing of turning you into an unwitting bomber by putting explosives into your bag while you were away, set to explode after you were in the air again.
There were also a fair number of grim-faced British soldiers and security guards wandering around. You could tell what they were because of their uniforms, of course, but also because of the menacing automatic weapons they carried.
I’d seen nothing like this in the American airports we’d left hours before.
When it was time to board our plane to Hamburg, Germany, we lined up with the other passengers. Here, as at home, we put our carry-on luggage and purses on a conveyor belt through a machine that X-rayed baggage and walked through a gate that scanned us, too.
I’d done this in San Francisco, and again in New York City without a problem. But at Heathrow, when I walked through the sensor gate, it beeped loudly.
I hadn’t done a lot of traveling by air, but I’d always wondered what happened if the Authorities did happen to find something suspicious. Now, I was about to find out.
Two guards appeared immediately and before I knew it, I’d been separated from my husband and daughter and asked, in rather clipped tones, if I was carrying any metal on my person.
Um, no, I said. Everything I have is in my purse and carry-on bag, and they just went through the machine.
The guards told me to step through the gate again. I did. It beeped.
I was hustled to the side and ordered, sharply, to put my arms out and spread my legs apart. An unsmiling female guard patted me down professionally and very, very carefully.
I had never before in my life been patted down by the Law – American OR British. My poor husband watched wide-eyed from the sidelines, holding my 6-year-old daughter’s hand.
The guards didn’t find anything, of course – I wasn’t a terrorist and I wasn’t trying to conceal anything dangerous or deadly in my clothes. But there was that maddening, telltale beep.
What a very odd feeling this was. My stomach was fluttering and I broke out in a light sweat. I knew I wasn’t a bad guy, but I felt guilty anyway. And by now, I was gibbering. I had no idea what could be making the machines dislike me so.
Finally, the female guard, looking hard at me, softened. “Your hat,” she said.
“My … hat?”
I was wearing a pretty, black felt hat with elegant black netting. It looked a bit like a lady’s hat from the 30s. I loved hats back then, and I thought wearing it with my dark wool suit and calf-length, charcoal wool coat would make me look quite “international.” I wanted to be taken as a sophisticated American. No jeans and sweatshirts while traveling by air overseas for me. I had class.
Well, I do think I pulled that off. I was a very attractive young woman. And I beeped.
What I didn’t know was that in the hat’s rim was a stiff metal wire, sewn in help the hat hold its rakish shape.
The guard told me to give her the hat and pass through the gate again. I did. This time, I didn’t beep.
I laughed, deeply embarrassed. The guard did not laugh. She told me to put the hat back on and do it one more time.
I obeyed, and yep, the sensors beeped.
The Mystery of the Beeping Blonde was a mystery no more.
I apologized profusely. It had never occurred to me that my hat might set off the sensors – I honestly had no idea it had any metal in it. My apology was accepted with a grim nod of the head, but no smile, and the guards didn’t apologize to me for my scare, the delay in boarding or the embarrassment they’d caused me.
Nor did I expect them to. I knew, even as inexperienced and innocent as I was, that England had been the target of terrorism many times over the years. While becoming the object of the guards rapt attention wasn’t much fun, it was reassuring that they didn’t pussyfoot around about it.
My hat was given a further, thorough inspection (for a hidden automatic pistol?), and once it was declared harmless, I was allowed to put it back on my head and rejoin my husband and daughter. My hat and I had held up the long, slow boarding line for about ten minutes and while it was happening, I’d been the absolute center of everyone’s fascinated, almost fearful attention.
When we arrived in Hamburg, I noticed even more guards wandering the airport crowds, all of them carrying scary-looking weapons. I’d been taught to break down, rebuild, load and fire and M16 in my Air Force days – I knew the damage these weapons could do.
I was a neophyte no longer.
Even back then, I wondered at the difference between the seriousness with which the Europeans treated the threat of terrorism and the offhandedness toward it in my own country.
Each day when I went to my Army public affairs job on base, where I worked as a civilian, I was stopped at the base gate and my ID checked carefully. Sometimes, a soldier would come out of the guard shack with a mirror on a long stick and check the undercarriage of my car, as well. As military members and their dependents, we were exhorted to do this check ourselves before we even got into our cars, as well, and told to vary our routes to work each day. There’d been no recent terror attacks anywhere in Germany, but the threat was treated seriously.
I never really believed that I or my family or anyone else I knew was in any real danger during the six years I lived there. Nevertheless, I didn’t think the precautions were silly, and I was careful when I traveled to keep my eye on my own bags and simply be wary. It was a way of life, one I quickly grew accustomed to.
I became interested in what would make people resort to terrorism, and I set about learning all I could about it. I read books and once, I attended a conference at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn on international terrorism. It was fascinating.
What I learned was that terrorism is warfare of the last resort, undertaken by those who, right or wrong, sane or mad, feel disenfranchised by their governments. I learned that terrorism is directed against innocent civilian populations, for the most part, because only by terrorizing the general population can these disenfranchised types get the undivided attention of their governments and the world. They feel that other means have failed and will continue to do so. And terrorists, no matter the reason for their actions, feel powerless.
It was quite an education.
Many years later, I began studying the Troubles in Ireland. Some of my ancestors were Irish; I know little about them or why they came to America, or whether or not they’d been affected by the terrible things that happened there at the end of the 19th Century. I learned about the Irish Republican Army and other terrorist organizations on both sides of the conflict, and I learned about Great Britain’s complicity in the conflict, one that continues even today. Northern Ireland, and Belfast, continue to seethe quietly under the Good Friday Agreement, and there are individuals in power there who would like nothing better than to see it fail utterly.
I started learning about politics. I learned about gerrymandering. I learned about detentions without trial and kangaroo courts, and why a young person would take up arms against his neighbors and his government. And I learned, in the process, about terrorism in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
I’m no expert. But I feel that I know a lot more than most of my peers and in fact, a lot more than most Americans about terrorism, guerilla warfare, and why people do this to other people. It’s a terrible thing, and wrong no matter how you turn it, but it is also sadly understandable.
When President Bush declared his War on Terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks, I was appalled. You don’t fight terrorism with soldiers and guns and war – a cursory study of Northern Ireland is all you need to see that it simply doesn’t work. A good look at Israel’s reaction to the Palestinians also shows that tanks and military maneuvers are useless against terrorists.
The only solution to terrorism is the negotiating table, where all parties sit down and hammer out their grievances and set about changing the conditions that leave people feeling helpless and disenfranchised. All the guns, armed conflicts, guards at the borders, airport x-ray machines and shoe inspections in the world won’t stop a terrorist who’s determined to strike, and only intelligence and good, old-fashioned police work can do even a little to prevent it.
The problem must be addressed at its root – and that’s something that we in the West just can’t seem to understand.
Or perhaps, our leaders understand it only too well, and that’s why the root issues will never be addressed and they’ll only continue to fight it with air attacks and bombs and soldiers and tanks, killing civilians indiscriminately and compelling more and more of the disenfranchised of the world to adopt this terrible, undefeatable type of warfare. They don’t really want it to end. There’s too much money to be made and too much power to be won.
The War on Terror will never end until we stop the vicious cycle that makes it inevitable.
*Correction: The Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 was on Dec. 21, 1988, two years after I arrived in Germany. Sorry about that; long-past events tend to muddle in the memory. Still, Lockerbie was one of the terror incidents that compelled me to open my mind and learn.