Breaking Glass

Forgetting a Villian

Imagine it is the year 2030, and you are talking to some young adults.  To your horror, you find that they have never heard the name Osama bin Laden.  As you begin to rant about the ignorance of the young, you find to your still greater astonishment that none of your older friends have any recollection of the name, even those who lived through September 11.  How is this kind of amnesia possible?  Are memories really so short?

This is very much the situation in which anyone who recalls the 1970’s and 80’s finds himself when he mentions the name Abu Nidal.  For two decades, Abu Nidal was the most notorious name in terrorism worldwide, the most dreaded international villain, who made regular appearances in popular fiction and thrillers.  The pioneer of megaterror, he was the man most closely identified with acts of mass violence against Western civilians, and as the villain (it was thought) most likely to seek weapons of mass destruction.  Today, though, his name is all but forgotten.

At the simplest level, this story shows how fragile public memory is, and how susceptible to media manipulation.  More important, though, it forces us to rethink the history of terrorism, and to challenge any easy solutions to that problem.  As studies of terrorism have poured forth over the past decade, they have focused overwhelmingly on the ideology of radical Islam, personified by Bin Laden and his Qaeda...

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