Night of the Lone Wolves

by Adam Elkus

Special to Defense and the National Interest
November 28, 2007

Super-Empowered Individuals

The end of the Cold War and beginning of the War on Terrorism has given rise to a number of revolutionary concepts in the study of unconventional warfare. In only 17 years a vibrant alternative defense community has produced innovative operational and strategic concepts such as fourth generation warfare, netwar, non-trinitarian warfare, Thomas P.M. Barnett’s SysAdmin, and John Robb’s global guerrillas. The latest in this distinguished intellectual line is the concept of the “super-empowered individual.” When theorists like Robb, Barnett, Col. T.X. Hammes, and Fred Ikle write about this ominous figure, they are not talking about The Hulk, Magneto, or Professor X. Instead, defense thinkers warn that technology and the increasing vulnerability of modern globalized society could one day allow a single man to “take on the world”.

Who is the “super-empowered individual?” He is talented, alienated from society, and willing to kill large numbers of people. The technological revolution has given him destructive tools unimaginable to the anarchists and terrorists of old. He is an innovatorhe creates new doctrines, tactics, and operations. A “brittle” infrastructure that lacks redundancy and resiliency gives him a perfect target. Living off the grid, he is invisible to authorities. The unprecedented nature of his attack ensures that no counter-measures are in place to prevent it. And when he strikes, his attack will not only kill massive amounts of people, but also profoundly change the financial, political, and social systems that govern modern life.

This is a frighteningly plausible vision. As blogger and futurist Mark Safranski gloomily noted, “the world is but one self-sacrificing genetic microbiologist away from a super-empowered suicide bomber riding international air routes to a new black plague”. That being said, many scientists and security experts note the immense difficulty involved in acquiring, maintaining, and deploying weapons of mass destruction. One expert, Bruce Schneier, is especially vehement in deriding what he calls “movie-plot” threats.

Who is right? Both sides. For now, the probability that a super-empowered individual will trigger a extreme mass casualty event is extremely low. But the high odds against such a catastrophe occurring will ensure that when it happens we will be taken totally by surprise. If a mass-murdering microbiologist is indeed preparing to make engineered smallpox complimentary to the in-flight meal, there is little we can do to stop him. Confused? With apologies to The Matrix, it’s time to take the red pill.

The Black Swan

Safranski’s bioterrorism scenario is what mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a “Black Swan,” an event “[whose] very unexpectedness helps create the conditions for it to occur”. The very unlikeness of such events prevents us from taking them seriously—which in turn enables them to happen. One can retroactively implement security measures that would have prevented the event from occurring, but it unlikely that such an event would happen again.

The immediate alternative is what journalist Ron Suskind calls the “1% doctrine”—an attempt to investigate or prepare for every threat—even one that has only 1% chance of occurring. Such an overreach weakens overall preparedness and makes the public more likely to disbelieve government warnings of a credible threat. The only thing we can do, as Robb eloquently argues in Brave New War, is to increase our own societal resilience to these threats, and build redundancies into our complex and fragile systems. If we cannot predict or prevent a Black Swan, we can at least lessen its damage.

The Lone Wolf

The biggest problem, however, with analysis of super-empowered individuals in the defense community is that it sets the entry level for a super-empowered individual too high and misses what truly makes them super-empowered. One does not have to have a suitcase nuke to be super-empowered, although it certainly helps. Super-empowered individuals are able to change systems not because of the magnitude of their attacks, but because those attacks effect us on Boyd’s moral/mental level. Bin Laden’s biggest achievement on 9/11 was not the scale of the destruction, but that the attacks disrupted American life enough to alter our entire grand strategy in response.

While Col. Hammes uses the 2002 Anthrax attacks as a model for how the super-empowered individual can take on the state, a closer model can be found in another attack that occurred that year: the Beltway sniper attacks. Two alienated loners shot and killed ten people. Their message to the media was crude and simple: "Your children are not safe, anywhere, at any time”. Needless to say, the media was transfixed by the case, and it dominated the news cycle. The fear that the snipers spread was disproportionate to the actual casualties they inflicted.

There have always been alienated and sociopathic individuals who have sought—and succeeded—to make a name for themselves through violence. From the early anarchists of the late 19th and 20th centuries to today’s serial killers, the media has consistently amplified and exaggerated the threat posed by lone killers, terrorists, and other malcontents. Many explicitly seek this attention, as evidenced by the flood of manifestos, messages sent to the media, and sensationalistic crimes. This desire for attention is frequently reciprocated with heavy coverage and breathless media pseudo-psychology designed to uncover (on camera) what “drove” these individuals to kill.

However, what makes these individuals “super-empowered” today is the way that their acts of terror are magnified by the power of electronic media to involve us in that violence. It is not completely accurate to state that those acts are wide-ranging because of the attention they receive. It is because that attention, and the realism and immediacy of electronic media, makes us experience fear of them as if we were there ourselves. It is a manufactured experience.

In the aftermath of 9/11, countless news stories featured individuals in small towns across America’s heartland expressing fear over terrorism, despite the extremely low probability that Bin Laden would care about the town rec center in Peoria. The true innovation represented by the advent of super-empowered individuals is the blurring of the tactical and strategic levels. An individual’s actions—with or without a weapon of mass destruction—can disrupt our society’s moral cohesion. The entry cost for this disruption is very low—all one needs is a cheap weapon and a sense of theater.

Given the continuing transfer of technological and social power to the individual, the future of super-empowered individuals may be the megalomaniacal super-terrorist. But today’s super-empowered individual is not the scowling jihadist with the suitcase nuke. It is the school shooter, the office shooter, the serial killer, the anarchist and survivalist. The nihilistic, televised face of today’s super-empowered actor is Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. Armed with commercially available small arms, Cho killed dozens, publicizing his efforts with a video sent to NBC News (which was promptly broadcasted). It is also Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who waged a one-man crusade against industrial society with the aid of letter bombs and rambling manifestos distributed by the New York Times. And it is also Timothy McVeigh, who drove a Ryder truck packed with explosives into the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

An Appetite for Apocalypse

Against this, what can be done? There are a couple of obvious tactical steps—better preparing police and first responders for these kinds of scenarios. The larger problem, however, lies in the way we react to such violence. One can blame the media for amplifying acts of violence by lone wolf killers and terrorists, but such amplification would not sell unless there was a demand for it.

Perhaps, as European philosopher Slavoj Zizek theorized, we are unwittingly addicted to images of our own destruction. We eagerly devour disaster movies and thrillers that prominently feature events that range from catastrophic to world-ending. In a time of global terrorism and insurgency, one of the most popular television shows is Fox’s 24, which regularly shows fictionalized usage of biological, chemical, and even nuclear weapons. Disturbingly enough, before 9/11 several popular thrillers had plotlines featuring planes being flown into buildings.

Why do we vicariously crave these experiences? Zizek himself echoes Freud in claiming that they tap into deep anxieties and fears we unconsciously hold about modernity—that we fear that underneath the edifice of ordered, secure civilization is little more than raw savagery that threatens to consume us at any given moment. One can also point to the long tradition of apocalyptic literature and mythology, common to all faiths and cultures, and note that these media displays tap into a deep, subconscious cultural nerve honed over the centuries.

They Don't Have to Win

In any event, we have always lived with danger and always will. And the threat posed by murderous, alienated individuals, with or without weapons of mass destruction, will also always be with us. But the good news is that the key to overcoming these threats lies in two bedrock American values—hope and pragmatism: hope for a better world and the determination to create such a world; and the pragmatism that has helped us continuously innovate to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

What is needed is leadership at the top level that encourages and channels those values within the American people, instead of leadership that burdens them with fear. True leadership will recognize that strategy is not just wanton destruction—it is also, as John Boyd stated, “a pattern for vitality and growth”. If we recognize this, we can all be “super-empowered individuals” instead of victims huddling in fear of the sound of anything beyond the campfire.

Adam Elkus is a writer specializing in foreign policy and security. His work has been published in Foreign Policy in Focus, US Cavalry on Point, and Foreign Policy Forum.

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