Missed in all the talk about the Boston attacks is that key details suggest that something new is going on.
Consider this about what we used to call the "Global War on Terror." In its early stages, it was clearly a product of global forces that were almost a century old. World War I blew apart four of the globally dominating empires of the 19th century – Germany's, Austro-Hungary's, Russia's and the Ottoman Empire. The history of the world since then has been largely about the fallout of those four collapses. World War II was brought on by Germany and the remnants of Austro-Hungary; the Cold War by the successor to the Russian Empire; the Global War on Terror by the many countries and movements that swirled around in the aftermath of the Ottoman's fall, together with the successors of the less consequential (in the 19th century) Persian Empire.
Most of the adversaries we have faced since the 1930s have been direct successors to the players of World War I, even including in the Middle East. Our allies in the Middle East now are by and large successors to our Middle East allies in the First and Second World Wars. Our adversaries are by and large successors to elements that sided with the Germans.
But of late new elements have emerged, elements entirely unattached to those long-ago struggles.
The Boston bombers are Chechens. They are heirs to an ancient struggle to be sure. Tolstoy's first short story has Russian military action in the Caucasus as a backdrop. But until now, Chechens have not figured significantly in attacks on the West.
But the new elements go beyond the Boston bombers' central Asian ties. In Mexico, the drug cartels represent a new kind of threat, similar but far from identical to terrorism. They are said to be in league with Chavezesta Venezuela, a totally new adversary, which has allied with Iran.
One reason for insisting on greater border security comes from reports about this connection. We have been hearing for years that Iranian agents and allied elements from Hamas and Hezbollah have been among the illegal crossers of the border, with the aid of the drug cartels. The North Koreans are thought to have reached out to the cartels for the same purpose. The Boston bombers did not come here that way. The worry is that those who do would be better trained and more lethal.
I have written before on this site of the proliferation of separatist movements around the world. But as with the Chechens rebels, we should not discount the prospect that these movements, many of which depend on terror methods to conduct their struggle, might not join in alliances of convenience to attack us or other industrialized nations.
They don't necessarily need to cross our borders. They could be looking to attack via the cyberspace. Some fear that the American Airlines shutdown of last week may have been a cyberattack.
We have been principally concerned with cyberthreats from China. But what about cyberattacks from Iran, North Korea or rogue elements in central Russia?
In thinking about this unsettling new world, we should also think about weapons technology. Shortly after 9/11, an al-Qaida operative was foiled from bringing a dirty bomb into the United States. A dirty bomb is a small explosive device in a nuclear casing. Rather than bringing down buildings, it is designed to contaminate and make uninhabitable sections of s city. Think of the pressure cooker bombs in Boston, but with nuclear waste instead of nails and ball bearings adhered to its casing.
The point is that you no longer need to be a president of the United States to communicate from your car or plane with people all over the world. A simple cellphone will do the trick. Similarly the day is approaching, if it is not already here, when you no longer need to be part of a national military to inflict catastrophic damage on an adversary. The suitcase bomb may be the cellphone of coming warfare.
Think now of a drug cartel-North Korea-Hezbollah-Chechen rebel-al-Qaida alliance aimed at paralyzing the United States. The goal would be to take us out of their various parochial conflicts. Such a challenge would not emanate from the successors of the 19th century empires, seek analogous goals or play by analogous rules. It would be entirely new to our experience.
As I say, the outlines of a new global challenge may be just emerging. What brave new world that has such creatures in it.