LONDON - I knew something was up when I couldn't get a cab. Then there were sirens and helicopters whirring overhead. I stopped a passerby to ask what was going on. He said something about a car bomb outside a disco six blocks from my hotel. A few hours later, I finally found a taxi. The driver warned me that it was nearly impossible to get across town. Another bomb had been uncovered in a car park. Next day, more news: a suicide bomber had driven his Jeep into an airport and jumped out, his body on fire, screaming "Allah! Allah!"
Where was I? Baghdad? Kabul? Tel Aviv? No, I was in England. But it could have been anywhere. The Middle East: Now playing at a theater near you.
But this movie gets more confusing every time you watch it. When you watched it on 9-11 it was about America's presence in the heart of Arabia. And when you watched it on 7-7 it was about unemployed and alienated Muslim youths in Britain. In Jordan not long ago, it was about a wedding at a Western hotel. In Morocco recently, it was about an Internet cafe. And two days ago in Yemen it was about seven Spanish tourists who were killed when a suicide bomber drove into them at a local tourist site.
Because these incidents are scattered, we're growing numb to just how crazy they are. In the past few years, hundreds of Muslims have committed suicide amid innocent civilians - without making any concrete political demands and without generating any vigorous, sustained condemnation in the Muslim world.
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Two trends are at work here: humiliation and atomization. Islam's self-identity is that it is the most perfect and complete expression of God's monotheistic message, and the Quran is God's last and most perfect word. To put it another way, young Muslims are raised on the view that Islam is God 3.0. Christianity is God 2.0. Judaism is God 1.0. And Hinduism and all others are God 0.0.
One of the factors driving Muslim males, particularly educated ones, into these acts of extreme, expressive violence is that while they were taught that they have the most perfect and complete operating system, every day they're confronted with the reality that people living by God 2.0., God 1.0 and God 0.0 are generally living much more prosperously, powerfully and democratically than those living under Islam.
In the old days, you needed a terror infrastructure with bases in Beirut or Afghanistan to lash out in a big way. Not anymore. Now all you need is the virtual Afghanistan - the Internet and a few cell phones - to recruit, indoctrinate, plan and execute. Hence, the atomization - little terror groups sprouting everywhere. Everyone now has a starter kit.
Of course, not all Muslims are terrorists. But it's been widely noted that virtually all suicide terrorists today are Muslims.
This cancer is erasing basic norms of civilization. In Iraq, we've seen suicide bombers blow up funerals and schools. In England, seven out of the eight people detained in the latest plot are Muslim doctors or medical students. Doctors plotting mass murder? Could that be? If Muslim leaders don't remove this cancer - and only they can - it will spread, tainting innocent Muslims and poisoning their relations with each other and the world.
Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at: The New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.