In these first few days following the knife attacks in a Kunming train station that killed close to 30 people and injured more than 100, there have been multiple comparisons to the September 11 attacks in the United States. Historical analogies can be useful, to an extent, but I would argue that the best (or, at least, a better) parallel can be drawn between Saturday’s attack and the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.
Before I even start; there has been a lot of bickering about whether or not the Kunming stabbings should be considered a terrorist attack. Multiple English-language outlets have placed “terrorist” in quotes, which seems to signify that, when these sorts of things happen outside of the US or Middle East, they aren’t really bona-fide terrorist actions, they’re just “terrorist”-ish. It’s one thing not to take the Chinese government at its word, but let’s be clear; if eight Muslim men and women ran into Grand Central Station and stabbed more than 150 people, for an explicitly political purpose, the first words in every New York Times headline and CNN report would be “terrorist attack.”
It’s another argument entirely whether or not “terrorist attack” is still a useful term. I would trend towards “No,” and say that it’s an overly-broad, much-abused, and unfortunately ambiguous way to describe such attacks. Describing the Kunming event as a “mass stabbing by Xinjiang separatists,” and September 11th as a “suicide plane attack by Al Qaeda” are clearer ways to write about such events, and they have the added benefit of avoiding the epic baggage of terms like “War on Terror” or connecting dots that don’t belong together. When facing the choice between describing events as they happened, or simply matching them up to pre-made, over-used vocabulary sets, I would hope most would choose the former. So to be clear; if you’re going to use the word “terrorist” at all, than you’ll have to use it with Kunming. If you’ll avoid the word in any context, a pat on the back for you.
That brings us back to the 9/11 comparisons. Chinese media have been describing the stabbings as “China’s September 11th,” and have started referring to the event as “3/1.” This is a haphazard comparison. The September 11th attacks in New York were a tipping point in a way that the Kunming stabbings simply aren’t. Following Kunming, there are more security officers in train stations, and an intensive law-enforcement investigation into the East Turkestan Independence Movement. Following 9/11, all bridges and tunnels were closed in New York, every single flight in the USA and Canada was grounded, and many national landmarks were closed to the public for months or even years. The Department of Homeland security was established in explicit response to the attacks, and the US engaged in a long war in Afghanistan. 9/11 was a complete watershed that fundamentally changed the way that the US government interacted with its citizens and with the rest of the world.
The Kunming attack simply isn’t that scale. The Chinese government has certainly responded, and is taking these events extremely seriously, but the PLA isn’t dropping bombs in the streets of Urumqi. If we’re determined to find a historical analogy for the Kunming attack, a better line would likely be drawn between 3/1/14 and 2/26/93, the World Trade Center bombing. Both incidents involved a small group of determined but under-resourced Muslim extremists, whose political goals (the creation of an East Turkestan state and an end to US relations with Israel) were beyond the realm of rational expectations.
Following the February 26th attack, the US responded (as China has responded now) with law enforcement, not the military. The FBI began investigating the attackers’ backgrounds, and the Al Qaeda organization first worked its way into the mainstream American foreign policy conversation, just as the East Turkestan Independence Movement has now gained recognition amongst China-watchers. The comparison is far from exact but, bearing in mind the staggering repercussions of 9/11, it seems a better analogy when discussing the Kunming stabbings.
The analogy raises a huge red flag; the fact that the 2/26 World Trade Center bombing (which killed 6 and did not cause significant structural damage to the tower) is only appreciated in relation to the 9/11 World Trade Center plane attack, which killed 2,996 and destroyed a significant chunk of downtown Manhattan. To hope that the Kunming stabbings are an isolated incident, and that they don’t factor into the global rise of radical Islam, is to be naive, just as many Americans likely witnessed the 2/26 attack and thought, “we really dodged a bullet there, at least the towers are still standing,” unaware of the events to come.
What the Americans didn’t realize at the time was that the WTC attack was only a first step, a warning shot. Americans took the attack seriously, but could not fathom that it was only the beginning. The event’s significance wasn’t clear until eight years later, when a massively more destructive act gave the former its context.
China is a heavily populated place, with tall buildings, big crowds, and cramped subways. The nation’s borders are spotty, military inexperienced with combat, and—as recent Russian daredevils can attest—even the security on the biggest building in its biggest city can be slipped with minimal effort. The attacks in Kunming are a tragedy and, if you’re the type to use the term, a terrorist attack. Let’s just hope they’re the peak instead of the beginning.