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A Terrifying and Dismal History
on March 23, 2007
"Any history of technology risks self absorption and exaggeration," writes Mike Davis. It is a good reminder, as books about the history of gunpowder or computers or telegraphy roll out. Davis's new book avoids those risks; _Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb_ (Verso) is a frightening book about a threat that needs no exaggeration to inspire fear. Davis has written scary books before, about slums and about Victorian holocausts, books with irony and grim humor that are not present in his new work. Car bombs, the "poor man's air force", are too loud and sad for such treatment. From their first use by anarchists, they have spread like viruses to all the battlefields of the world, and to the domestic areas where battles are not to be waged. In Davis's history, links are made between such disparate forces using car bombs as the CIA, the IRA, Tamil Tigers, and a host of "liberation" forces with Arabic names, and some of the chapters are mind-numbing with accounts of violence, attack and counterattack, or explanations of increases in technological sophistication while even the basic bicycle bomb is still being deployed with dismaying effectiveness.
You probably never heard of the bomber who gives his name to the book. Mario Buda was an anarchist who "with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse," and a wagon managed to bring terror to Wall Street in 1920. That he was not caught is due to one of the characteristics of car bombs that make them such a successful weapon: they are anonymous and leave little forensic evidence. Davis lists other advantages of car bombs. They can be of huge destructive force, and bombmakers are improving their power all the time. Their consequences cannot be denied or covered up by the governments who are their victims. They are cheap; bootlegged electronics and $500 of fertilizer will do the trick. They can be assembled by individuals who can find the information on-line or in manuals descended from CIA-sponsored training camps. They can be targeted on one particular site, but they can be counted upon to wreak the sort indiscriminate havoc that will demoralize a society. They can give to a small, marginalized group enormous and dramatic power, promiscuously equalizing the powerful and the weak. In this story there are so many bad guys, sometimes connected in more-or-less formal chains of command, sometimes staging car bomb duels against each other, sometimes adopting tactics of previous car bombers, sometimes just repeating such history independently, that it is often difficult to keep them straight, especially as within the short chapters the scenes shift from Vietnam to Beirut to Latin America to Oklahoma City, and of course to Iraq. The American who seems to have played the biggest role in promoting car bombs was Reagan's CIA Director William Casey, who in reply to disastrous car-bombings in Lebanon promoted response attacks on Hezbollah and schooled Afghanis to do so, with the resultant lessons going on to the future Al Qaeda.
Naturally Davis's history winds up with the dismal situation in Iraq, where there is no shortage of willing martyrs, and also, because of the depots left behind by the Baathist regime, no shortage of explosives. There is, however, a shortage of the preferred car to use. "Iraqi insurgents prefer American stolen cars because they tend to be larger, blend in more easily with the convoys of U.S. government and private contractors, and are harder to identify as stolen." There is a solution to any such shortage, however; SUVs stolen in California or Texas were exported to the Middle East to be car bombs. It's this sort of innovation that can be done at a primitive level that is one of the reasons car bombs are so powerful. In a scary and disheartening book, Davis gives little hope for abatement in the ever-increasing use of car bombs. Sensitive equipment that can sniff ammonium nitrate at a distance is years from being invented. Trace sensors placed throughout cities are far too expensive, especially in poor countries. Concrete obstacles and bomb-blast barriers can't be put everywhere, and current car bombs can send damage out over 400 yards. The futility is shown in Baghdad itself, where there are 6,000 checkpoints and 51,000 soldiers and police to staff them, but still car bombs go off every day. The secure Green Zone just sends bombers off to softer targets. Davis has scorn for those "besotted with fantasies of 'beating the terrorists' with panoptical surveillance, ion detection technology, roadblocks, and, that _sine qua non_, the permanent suspension of civil liberties." There is little escape from his dismal prediction: the car bomb has a brilliant future.