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Public Theology: Shocking and Awful
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Shocking and Awful
Terrorism comes in many forms, yet always has the same result.

By Dan Brook

Terrorism comes in many forms, yet always has the same result. We’ve felt it in Guernica, in Dresden, in Hiroshima, in Jerusalem, in Ramallah, in London, in Grozny, in Lhasa, in Belgrade, in New York, in Bali, in Kabul, and unfortunately in many ‘elsewheres’. Now we feel it in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities again. This is Mesopotamia, the ancient city of Ur—the birthplace of Abraham, agriculture, writing, law, and mathematics—the cradle of civilization.

Terrorism terrorizes. It causes fear and insecurity, doubt and anxiety, disrupting people’s everyday actions and, perhaps more importantly, their thoughts and feelings. Terrorism is an existential neutron bomb, a sundering of peace and normalcy, paralyzing and neutralizing us, long after the physical bombs have exploded. War is terrorism on a national scale. Speaking from Baghdad via Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now radio program, independent journalist Mei Ying Welsh expressed that she was “mesmerized” and “shocked”, unable to flee as she witnessed the aerial incineration of a nearby building, seeing “mushroom clouds of smoke”, hearing “heart-dropping sounds”, and feeling the bombs’ powerful “shock waves”.

That is exactly what was planned. In Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance (NDU Press, December 1996,, Harlan K. Ullman (who counts Colin Powell as one of his students) and James P. Wade (a former undersecretary of “defense”) describe shock and awe as “the non-nuclear equivalent of the impact that atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on the Japanese.”

The BLU-82 (often called a Daisy Cutter) and the new MOAB (referred to as the “mother of all bombs”), the largest of non-nuclear bombs, play just such a role. These gigantic bombs mimic nuclear explosions but without involving nuclear fusion or radioactivity. So similar is it, however, that when the US employed the first of eleven of these bombs in Kuwait and Iraq during the first Gulf War, British soldiers reported to their commanders on 7 February 1991 that the US had “nuked” the area.

These big “bombs [a]re dropped as much for their psychological effect as for their antipersonnel effects”, according to the Federation of American Scientists, which is therefore a form of terrorism. Secretary of Offense Rumsfeld confirmed this on 11 March 2003, saying it is as much a psychological as a physical weapon. Though it appears taboo to say, these massive US bombs are essentially chemical weapons of mass destruction, as they contain a slurry of ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder, and polystyrene that gets aerosolized after exploding and indiscriminately kills whomever is unlucky enough to be in the 100-yard area it devastates.

Ullman and Wade’s Shock and Awe also cites the Nazi Blitzkrieg as another good historical example and classify the Holocaust as a “state policy of Shock and Awe”. Disquieting, to say the least, but not altogether inappropriate. Nazi blitzkriegs, so-called “lightening wars”, were intended by Hitler to be employed not only for their physical speed and rapid destruction, but also for the panic and disorganization, the fear and terror, they inspired in the victims. Continuing what Hitler began, Ullman and Wade argue that “shock and awe” is “aimed at influencing the will, perception, and understanding of an adversary rather than simply destroying military capability.” The failure of American imagination has led to a violent assault on the imaginations of Iraqis.

In follow-up interviews, Ullman explains that shock and awe is “best achieved by a blitz of activity”, stating that “some of the tactics are purely psychological [perhaps like the more than 22 million propaganda flyers dropped on Iraq]...some of the tactics work on the mind more violently”, designed to “intimidate” and terrorize a civilian population. Further clarifying an ugly reality, Ullman adds “you also take the city down. ... In 2, 3, 4, 5 days they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted”. Bully-in-Chief Bush describes this terrorism as “liberation”.

US generals recently warned us that we would know when the “shock and awe” phase had begun and wouldn’t have to ask. Beware the generals. A thousand or more cruise missiles and thousands of “precision” bombs (apparently including the type that blew up a bus full of civilians, an oil refinery over the border in Iran, a British plane, a hospital, a marketplace, a residential neighborhood, and various journalists) have already attacked Baghdad and its residents, including over two million children in the city, in the first few days of “war”. Hundreds, or more, of those children are now dead or wounded.

Is this a war? In reality, it is an invasion with a series of massacres. With the US military being several hundred times more powerful than the Iraqi army (based on military budgeting, not to mention the most advanced technology for the US and twelve years of deadly sanctions for Iraq), the ratio of force is far greater than a large adult beating up on a skinny first grader, even if that first grader is a school yard bully. The fact that Saddam Hussein commits heinous crimes is absolutely no excuse for Bush to do so. A shared jail cell would be more appropriate—the rightful place for violent repeat offenders.

Iraq neither attacked nor threatens the US. Iraq has no ties to Al Qaida, though Saudi Arabia clearly does, as Greg Palast ( and others have proven. Bush’s war is an unprovoked imperial-style war (reminiscent of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) of extreme hypocrisy, full-on arrogance, and “limitless violence” with the US threatening to use first-strike tactical nuclear bombs (!), depleted uranium (known as DU, which remains radioactive for billions of years), bombs containing chemical slurries (the class of “bunker-busters”), so-called non-lethal gases (though they are sometimes lethal, as witnessed recently in Moscow), and any or all other “options” for the US military’s many weapons of mass destruction. Tragically, Iraqi citizens are personally reliving the attacks on New York’s Twin Towers by being attacked themselves. To those being bombed, the differences between Bin Laden and Bush are minimal.

It’s not surprising that Bush’s war is being waged without the approval, legitimacy, and legality of the United Nations as well as most of its allies. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice have spoken of “attacking the dark corners of the world”, wars being waged by the US in up to 60 countries, war being waged for at least the duration of our lifetimes. I am shocked and awed at the rhetoric and the reality. Iraq now. Also Iran? Afghanistan again? The Philippines? Colombia? Yemen? North Korea? Sudan? India? Pakistan? Endless war means endless terrorism, neither of which will ever end war or terrorism. Only social justice can do that.

The illegitimate Bush administration has launched an immoral war with untold costs against innocent civilians for an unknown length of time and with shifting goals. The only clear winners seem to be the oil, arms, financial, and construction industries represented by ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Halliburton, the Carlyle Group, Bechtel, and other mega-corporate cronies with very close ties to the avaricious Bush administration. The clear losers, in addition to Iraqi civilians, are US civilians. It is we who will have to bear the brunt of an even more arrogant Bush, stronger global corporations but a weaker economy, budget deficits at all levels of government, a rollback of civil, constitutional, workers’, and women’s rights, the decimation of much-needed domestic programs, and the “blowback” from increased attacks against America and Americans around the world (as the CIA warned). This is not speculation; it is already happening.

I don’t know if shock and awe is “working” on the residents of Baghdad, but it’s certainly working on me. It’s shocking and awful. I’m in shock. I’m in awe. I’m sickened. I’m mourning the dead on all sides. And while I’m disgusted with Bush and his misguided, ruthless, and greedy gang, I’m inspired by the tens of millions of ordinary people in the US and around the world who are protesting this war in ten thousand different and creative ways, having quickly reasserted themselves as the “other superpower”. Let’s support the troops by bringing them home and treating them well. Let’s support the people by ending the war and terrorism against them. Let’s support our society by supporting peace, elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, full employment with meaningful jobs and living wages, adequate housing and healthcare for all, a clean and sustainable environment, full civil rights, racial and sexual equality, a well-funded education system, the elimination of poverty and homelessness, serious electoral reform, democratized political and economic institutions, cooperation and community, social security, and so on. Wouldn’t it be great to be shocked and awed by peace and social justice for a change?

Dan Brook teaches sociology part-time at UC Berkeley. He can either be contacted via his ThinkLinks page at or via

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Date Added: 3/29/2003 Date Revised: 3/30/2003 7:40:02 PM

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