(Jim Buie is a writer, editor, public relations professional and Internet consultant. This is an updated and revised text of an invited lecture given to the civic advocacy group Hadassah. Contact Jim Buie at 301-270-6504 or email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Many of you probably remember the inspiring words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of dedicated, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
In the last few years, those inspiring words have taken on a darker, even terrifying, meaning: From our experiences with domestic and international terrorism, we have seen that a small group of dedicated, committed people can change the world FOR THE WORSE.
We are in a new Information Age where a small cell of individuals have more power to instantly communicate, network, organize and mobilize hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of compatriots than an entire army did just a few decades ago.
We have discovered that a small group of dedicated, committed terrorists can wreak more havoc on us in a couple of hours and pose more danger to us than armies of nation-states. Unhampered by any need to build consensus, to protect their own population centers, to abide by the rules of warfare or to negotiate a game plan within bureaucracies, impassioned people can easily create their own media, develop and incite a world-wide following of “partners,” mobilize and attack targets.
Osama Bin Ladin’s public relations operation has been quite sophisticated in reaching the Arab masses via videotape, web sites, and email, analysts say. Terrorist cells can connect by creating virtual meeting places on the Internet, send emails using encryption, and speak from almost any location via mobile phone. They don’t even have to meet in person to share ideas, mobilize and to act on their ideas.
Outside the range of state sponsorship or regulation, new media are offering new choices for a vast number of people. No longer sitting passively in front of their television sets, with limited choices, they can now interact with people around the world, and even become publishers, broadcasters and “narrow-casters” themselves without the high cost of purchasing or leasing a printing press or chopping down a forest.
This great burst of communication, and the rapid pace of change in computer technology, is sometimes called "the big bang" into the Information Age. It has left many people feeling dizzy, disoriented, resentful, frightened. In many ways, people today can probably sympathize with the people of the Middle Ages, who experienced the first Information Revolution. Johann Gutenberg introduced moveable type to Europe in 1440, and printed his famous Gutenberg Bible in the 1450s. Printing lowered the cost of education, made newspapers and literature accessible and affordable to the common man. It also placed demands on people to conquer their own illiteracy. With their curiosity sparked, they learned to read. An explosion in intellectual curiosity occurred that shattered unthinking customs and ushered in an age of creativity and individuality we now call the Renaissance.
It almost seems we are back where we started in the 1600s. "...All the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth," John Milton wrote in his famous Areopagitica. With no centralized media gatekeepers to set boundaries or filter out the "good" ideas from the "bad" ideas, the people have to rely on their own critical thinking skills to avoid tyranny.
Some people clearly are not up to the task.
As an “early adopter” of the Internet, participating in and creating online communities since 1992, I realized this early. In an unmoderated, unedited, unfiltered Vox Populi, where the “voice of the people” is unconstrained by any need to identify oneself, take responsibility for one’s words, or to adhere to the courtesies of in-person discussion or debate, one had to suffer fools gladly, or in some cases, not so gladly -- with horror and complete exasperation.
I remember in the spring of 1995, exploring Internet message boards. Back then, the “enemies” for people in great need of them were the federal government, President Clinton, and ethnic minorities. The messages flashed across my computer screen:
"Clinton's a murderer!"
"Die, Clinton, die!"
"Blacks are animals."
"The Holocaust never happened."
"Jews are rodents grubbing for money and power."
"The U.S. government is the enemy."
There were promotions on these message boards for “The Turner Diaries,” a book about the “coming” ban on private firearms ownership, round-ups of suspected gun owners, and the need for “patriots” to engage in violent guerrilla warfare to overthrow the U.S. government.
Coincidentally, a few weeks later, the Oklahoma City bombing occurred. My immediate suspicion was that some anti-government, terrorist conspiracy had been hatched on the Internet. We learned later that suspect Timothy McVeigh was indeed inspired by “The Turner Diaries,” and he did utilize the Internet. But there was little evidence that the Oklahoma bombing was a conspiracy hatched on the Internet.
Extremist Internet postings for the most part are meaningless rants of nuts and kooks. Even so, I could not help but believe that Internet message boards provided a kind of early-warning system of the virulently anti-government ideas in the political atmosphere at the time that reinforced McVeigh’s view that he was the courageous leader of an uprising. Certainly he could not possibly have gotten that impression from reading The New York Times or other mainstream media.
Reading so many hateful words over the Internet, I frankly was not shocked when anti-abortion zealots murdered a doctor in New York who performed abortions. The doctor's name and home address had appeared on an anti-abortion web site, "WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE," and web surfers found his name crossed out moments after the shooting occurred.
Since September of 2001, Americans no longer need to imagine that they have enemies. We all of us were shocked to discover that our nation’s enemies were quite capable of coordinating and mounting four air strikes against us in the course of an hour. Without doubt, a small group of dedicated, committed Al Qaeda members changed our view of the world.
As the Internet has become more pervasive, there is strong evidence that new technologies make the job of terrorism easier. Groups like Al Qaeda use the Internet to communicate and organize, and suicide bombers use cell phones to coordinate the timing of their blasts.
Terrorists in Pakistan sent anonymous emails to news organizations announcing the kidnapping and torture of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, attaching digital photographs of Pearl in captivity to prove their story. Letters and photographs sent through “snail mail” would likely have far more physical evidence, such as DNA samples, fingerprints, or postmarks, and sadly a far slower communication process that might have given police time to track down Pearl’s captors before he was murdered.
John Walker Lind, the “American Taliban,” first became infatuated with radical Islam by accessing web sites. Just a few years earlier, he would have had enormous difficulty accessing such material.
So, what is to be done? How can free speech be preserved in the new era without leaving society vulnerable to domination by extremists? What are good people to do about this new-found power of communication that seems to be used too much by people impassioned for the wrong reasons and the wrong causes?
Is new technology to blame for this new world that gives flattened hierarchies of networks as much power as standing armies? And if so, should we ban these new technologies?
NO. Technology is neutral, neither good nor evil. I’m certain far more good has come from these new communications technologies than evil. Obviously, we cannot put the genie back in the bottle.
And the answer is NOT to crack down on personal telecommunications privacy. That is certain to backfire. As Jon Ippolito, media curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, has written:
“The Internet is the most radical experiment in liberty of the past half-century. And it is our experiment. Before retreating into reinforced citadels to defend ourselves against ‘terror networks,’ it may be useful to remember that the first decisive victory of dispersal over centralization was won by George Washington's ragtag guerrillas.
“Two centuries later, Rand Corp. analysts, concerned that a Soviet strike against a centralized hub could "decapitate" American communication in wartime, decided that the best defense would be a network -- and the Internet was born. To the Soviets, this collection of independent computer servers presented a nearly invulnerable target, able to route around damage dynamically, harboring communication that is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.....”
It is that sort of anonymous, decentralized communication that allows resistence leaders in totalitarian countries to flourish. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, if Drazen Pantic of B92 radio in Belgrade had been forced to broadcast his anti-Milosevic commentary from a permanently accessible brick-and-mortar tower, he probably would not be alive today. Because he and his compatriots were able to operate via an anonymous Internet presence, they could get their message out and help to liberate their people.
Ultimately, then, to preserve free speech in this new medium, in this new age, I believe we have to trust as John Milton trusted. If "truth be in the field," we injure it by seeking to license and prohibit free speech or free press. We should not "misdoubt her strength," he wrote. "Let truth and falsehood grapple. Whoever knew truth put to the worse, in an free and open encounter?"
One answer, then, is to use new technologies to find our own political and civic voices. We, too, can communicate with, network with, organize and mobilize hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of compatriots in causes that we care about. Like never before, we can participate each day as “five minute activists” in causes larger than ourselves right from our own desktops.
Over the years, I have discovered online vast networks of people who are working hard to create a better world, and more than a handful of whom I have since had the delight to meet face to face.
We can create networks of the good guys. In 1997, spurred by the mugging of my next-door neighbor and the apparent increase of crime in my neighborhood, I created an email discussion group of neighbors in a three-block area. Now more than 140 neighbors subscribe, and exchange messages on a daily basis. This neighborhood network has recreated something of a village atmosphere – in communicating with and caring for each other, mobilizing, increasing a sense of participation in the neighborhood. It helps with neighborhood watch – we become immediately aware when crimes occur in our neighborhood. We communicate with the police, and they communicate with us. We used our e-mail network, linked with other neighborhood e-mail lists, to mobilize and lobby the city and county successfully for a new community center.
I'm currently replicating the success in this one neighborhood by building community networks in other neighborhoods, with more than 1,000 total participants.
Instead of obsessing about the new power of terrorism, I think we should focus on what we can do in our own lives, in our own communities, in our own neighborhoods, using new technologies to make life better.
Like the psychologist William James,
"I am done with great things and big things,
great institutions and big success, and
I am for
those tiny molecular forces
that work from individual to individual, creeping through the
crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the
capillary oozing of water, yet which, if you give them time,
will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride."
No, we can't completely stop the haters, the terrorists, and the character assassins. Even if Osama Bin Laden used e-mail encryption to hide his plans from the CIA, that does not mean e-mail encryption must be eliminated. Even if Bin Laden's followers use the global communications network to recruit more followers, to make their plans and decide means of attack, even if crazies and malcontents post deeply offensive messages such as "the Holocaust never happened" or "the blacks are taking over America," that does not mean we must abandon our basic liberties in order to stop them.
But we can overwhelm them with our vastly larger numbers, and shine light in some dark corners. Let them vent their spleen. We don't need to feel helpless about it. With this new technology, we can network together to build communities of shared interests, shared goals, and stronger relationships.
During the Irish civil war, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote that his country had entered a time "when the best lacked conviction, while the worst were filled with passionate intensity."
If we do not do embrace this powerful new technology with a clear vision and determination to use it to advance civic and community life, we may be leaving it to those with darker motives who have already embraced it. With that in mind, when we hear the words of Margaret Mead about how a small group of dedicated, committed people can change the world, we can still be inspired.