Just a quick comment on something interesting I just ran across. There’s an interesting article on CNN.com about a man named Richard Pavlick who planned to blow up himself and President-elect John F. Kennedy in 1960 with a suicide car bomb. He actually came quite close to doing it on Sunday 11 December 1960 but at the critical moment Kennedy walked out of his residence in the company of Jackie and children Caroline and John Jr. Pavlick didn’t want to kill the wife and children so he held off and didn’t drive his car filled with dynamite at JFK. He was arrested a few days later. Because there was a major plane crash over New York the day that his arrest was announced, the story never got much attention.
This incident is yet another illustration of the fact that suicide bombing is not an exclusively Muslim phenomenon, as Robert Pape has been telling us for some years. That’s old news, however. What I find more interesting is that this happened long, long before suicide bombing hit the newspapers. This was, it would appear, a truly homegrown, utterly indigenous event. Moreover, Pavlick came to much the same solution as today’s best and brightest terrorists have as.
There are at least two routes by which innovation in military and terrorist affairs happen: either through borrowing ideas from others or by inventing ideas out of whole cloth. Lots of work has been done–some of it by me–on how terrorists read history, foreign doctrinal manuals, etc., and learn from others. Less exciting, but comparably important, however, is the the fact that the morphology of a problem will often lead people separated from each other in space and time to develop similar solutions. That’s what we saw with Pavlick.
One of the pieces of received wisdom in the world of terrorism studies is that terrorist’s tend to be “operationally conservative,” that is to say that they repeatedly use guns and explosives to do their work and seldom, in fact, use more exotic bits of equipment. In my opinion, there are many problems with this argument, but let me just note one. If isolated people come up with similar solutions to similar problems, is that a sign of some sort of cosmic conservatism that afflicts all terrorists or is it instead a logical consequence of the fact that these problems are all alike?
I vote for the latter choice.