Baby boomers grew up in the Cold War. When we were younger, it seemed almost normal. But BoomerCafé cofounder and executive editor Greg Dobbs, who spent many years as a journalist covering the world, says the Cold War has long since given way to a new normal.
Our world scares us in a new way every day.
For those of us who lived through it, the Cold War scared us. We dived under our desks during drills when air raid sirens sounded at school. We built shelters underground when Soviet missiles menaced from Cuba. But that wound down a quarter century ago. The enemy collapsed. We could breathe easy. The threat was over. Our world was safe.
That was so 20th Century. What replaced the Cold War became even scarier: terrorism. It became the new normal. And it has become increasingly complicated to combat.
The early threats of terror were scary enough. But at least, over the two decades during which I covered the Middle East, we knew who the terrorists were. They were the ones with machine guns in their arms or dynamite strapped to their chests.
Not so much any more. As we saw in Manhattan on Halloween, now they are the ones with a steering wheel between their hands. They’ve made the truck a tool of terrorism. Which as a weapon makes it invincible. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton delivered this dose of reality after Manhattan: “We cannot prevent everything, everywhere.” No matter where we live. No matter where we travel.
This comes as no surprise to terrorist experts. Back in 2010, Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire ran an article with the ominous title, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” counseling that a truck is meant “not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” It instructed terrorists to “pick up as much speed as you can… to strike as many people as possible in your first run.”
Also, in the early days, especially if we spent time in the Middle East, we knew who was directing the terrorists. Orders to foot soldiers came down from the top of the pyramid, whether it was a government chief or a military commander or the leader of a militant group like the PLO.
Not any more. Not since the Arab Spring almost seven years ago. Middle Eastern presidents and potentates had eyes and ears on every street corner in town, yet they didn’t see it coming. That’s because of the internet, which sometimes serves the purpose of good, but also is employed more and more as an instrument for evil. Radical Palestinians have used it to prompt stabbing attacks against Israelis with the hashtag #KillTheJew. ISIS has used it to recruit fanatical fighters.
So it’s no surprise that investigators found almost 4,000 pieces of ISIS propaganda on the cell phone of Manhattan’s bike path terrorist. Today orders don’t descend from on high. They travel anonymously and uncensored at the speed of gigabytes. And sometimes unseen, until it’s too late.
Now, the newest threat to our peace of mind, let alone our security, comes not from terrorists but from legitimate governments, several of which are feverishly working to create a “quantum computer,” or as the Washington-based Hudson Institute defined it last month, “The computer that could rule the world.” Basically it would be a computer with unprecedented speed and power to decrypt darned near anything. Or to put it in language more of us can understand, to hack darned near anything.
Forget your Target credit card or your Yahoo account or your Equifax credit report. Those are just the hors d’oeuvres. An enemy’s quantum computer could hack our nation’s very infrastructure. It could disrupt, maybe even ruin, our energy grids, our financial records, our transportation systems, our information networks, our health care connections, even our military communications. As the Hudson Institute warned in a report, “Imagine a thousand Equifax breaches happening at once.”
If it comes to that, traditional terrorism might seem like yesterday’s news. And so might the arms race. Because our most consequential competition with adversaries like China and Russia won’t be to have the best bombs any more. It’ll be to have the best computers. This is the next new normal.
We already know we’ve been hacked by adversaries. And we’ve hacked them. The threat is that one side escalates. Then the other follows. The new normal is not your father’s Cold War. It won’t melt buildings. But it could melt the society on which they stand.