Thinking About Terrorism

Two stereotypes dominate discussions of terrorism. They cloud thought and inhibit effective action

Terrorism is disturbing not just emotionally and morally but intellectually, as well. On terrorism, more than on other subjects, commentary seems liable to be swayed by wishful thinking, to base itself on unwarranted or flawed assumptions, and to draw from these assumptions irrational inferences, muzzily expressed.

Let me offer one example, typical of many more. The following is the conclusion to a recent Washington Post editorial, "Nervous Mideast Moment":

The United States, however, cannot afford to let its struggle against terrorism be overwhelmed by its differences with Libya. That gives the Qaddafis of the world too much importance and draws attention from the requirement to go to the political sources of terrorism. A principal source, unquestionably, is the unresolved Palestinian question. The State Department's man for the Middle East, Richard Murphy, has been on the road again, cautiously exploring whether it is possible in coming months to bring Israel and Jordan closer to a negotiation. This quest would be essential even if terrorism were not the concern it is. It marks the leading way that American policy must go.

The clear implication is that negotiation between Israel and Jordan can dry up "a principal source of terrorism." Now, nobody who has studied that political context at all, and is not blinded by wishful thinking, could possibly believe that. For the Arab terrorists—and most other Arabs—"the unresolved Palestinian question" and the existence of the State of Israel are one and the same thing. The terrorists could not possibly be appeased, or made to desist, by Jordan's King Hussein's getting back a slice of the West Bank, which is the very most that could come out of a negotiation between Jordan and Israel. The terrorists and their backers would denounce such a deal as treachery and seek to step up their attacks, directing these against Jordan as well as Israel.

That Washington Post editorial, like many others to the same tune, exemplifies a dovish, or sentimental, variety of wishful thinking on the subject of terrorism. There is also a hawkish, or hysterical, variety. Each has its own misleading stereotype (or stereotypes) of the terrorist. Let us look at the stereotypes:

Sentimental stereotype. According to this stereotype, the terrorist is a misguided idealist, an unsublimated social reformer. He has been driven to violence by political or social injustice or both. What is needed is to identify the measures of reform that will cause him to desist. Once these can be identified and undertaken, the terrorist, having ceased to be driven, stops.

Hysterical stereotype. Less stable than the sentimental variety, this can be divided into subvarieties:

(a) The terrorist is some kind of a nut—a "disgruntled abnormal" given to "mindless violence." ("Mindless violence" may be applicable to the deeds of isolated, maverick assassins. As applied to the planned activities of armed conspiracies, it is itself a mindless expression.)

(b) The terrorist is nothing more than a thug, a goon, a gangster. His "political" demands are simply a cover for criminal activity.

(c) The terrorist is an agent, or dupe, or cat's-paw of the other superpower. (He might, of course, be a nut or a goon as well as a dupe.)

These stereotypes serve mainly to confuse debate on the subject. There is no point in arbitrarily attributing motives, nice or nasty, to the terrorist. It might be more useful to look at the situations in which terrorists find themselves and at how they act, and may be expected to act, given their situations.

In what follows I shall bear in mind mainly (though not exclusively) the members of the most durable terrorist organizations of the twentieth century: the IRA (including its splinter groups) and the PLO (including its splinter groups).

Terrorists have a grievance, which they share with members of a wider community: the division of Ireland, the division of Palestine, the inroads of secularism into Islam, or whatever. But they also have, from the moment they become terrorists, significant amounts of power, prestige, and access to wealth, and these constitute vested interests in the present, irrespective of the attainment or non-attainment of their declared long-term political objectives.

The sentimentalist thinks of the terrorist as driven to violence by grievance or oppression. It would be more realistic to think of the terrorist as hauling himself up, by means of the grievance or oppression and the violence it legitimizes, to relative power, prestige, and privilege in the community to which he belongs. For an unemployed young man in a slum in Sidon or Strabane, for example, the most promising channel of upward social mobility is his neighborhood branch of the national terrorist organization. There are risks to be run, certainly, but for the adventurous, aggressive characters among the unemployed or the otherwise frustrated, the immediate rewards outweigh the risks. In this situation the terrorist option is a rational one: you don't have to be a nut, a dupe, or an idealist.

I don't mean that the terrorist is necessarily, or even probably, insincere about the national (or religious or other collective) grievance or in his hatred toward those seen as responsible for the grievance. On the contrary, hatred is one of the things that keep him going, and the gratification of hatred is among the rewards of the terrorist. The terrorist is not just a goon, out for the loot. His political motivation is genuine. But there are other rewards in his way of life as well as the hazy reward of progress toward the political objective. The possession of a known capacity and willingness to kill confers authority and glamour in the here and now, even on rank-and-file members in the urban ghetto or in the village. On the leaders it confers national and even international authority and glamour, and independence from financial worries.

If we accept that the terrorist's way of life procures him immediate rewards of that nature, and that he is probably not insensible to at least some of the rewards in question, it seems to follow that he will probably be reluctant to relinquish those rewards by voluntarily putting himself out of business.

The situation thus outlined has a bearing of a negative nature on the notion that there are "negotiated solutions" to the "problems" that "cause" terrorism.

First of all, a negotiated solution—being by definition an outcome that offers some satisfaction to both parties—will be inherently distasteful to terrorists and their admirers, accustomed as these are to regarding one of the parties (Britain, Israel, or another) as evil incarnate.

Second, to exploit that genuine distaste will be in the interests of the terrorists, in relation to the reward system discussed above. So pride and profit converge into a violent rejection of the "negotiated solution"—which therefore is not a solution to terrorism.

This is most obvious where the solution is to be negotiated between people who are not spokesmen for the terrorists. When Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher negotiated the Hillsborough Agreement over Northern Ireland, last November, that neither caused the IRA to give up nor deprived it of its hard-core popular support (though there was a drop of about 10 percent in electoral support for the IRA's political front, Sinn Fein). Similarly, if King Hussein and Shimon Peres were to reach agreement, it would not be likely to cause any of the Arab terrorist groups to go out of business or forfeit their hard-core support.

Suppose a terrorist (or putatively ex-terrorist) organization joined in the deal. That would presumably earn a cessation, or at least a suspension, of terrorist activity by the negotiating group and its immediate following. But the deal would be repudiated by other organizations, who would see no reason to go out of business; and since these intransigents would be demonstrably in line with the absolutist policies previously proclaimed by the whole movement, they would have high credibility and widespread support.

So the prospects for ending terrorism through a negotiated settlement are not bright, whether or not the terrorists are involved in the negotiations. But the insistence that a negotiated solution can end terrorism actually helps the terrorists. It does so because it places the responsibility for continuing terrorism equally on the terrorists and those they seek to terrorize. The enhanced respectability with which the terrorist is thereby invested gives him a foretaste of success and an encouragement to persevere. This is the opposite of what the dovish advisers desire, but it is the main result of their ill-advised endeavors.

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