Thinking About Terrorism

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

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.

Not only do doves sometimes help terrorists but some hawkish advisers also give inadvertent aid and comfort to the forces they abhor. The combating of terrorism is not helped by bombastic speeches at high levels, stressing what a monstrous evil terrorism is and that its elimination is to be given the highest priority. I'm afraid that the most likely terrorist reaction to such a speech, whether it comes from a President, a Secretary of State, or other important official, is: "You see, they have to pay attention to us now. We are hurting them. Let's give them more of the same. " And it all helps with recruitment. A movement that is denounced by a President is in the big time. And some kind of big time is what is most wanted by the aggressive and frustrated, who constitute the pool on which terrorist movements can draw.

What applies to speeches applies a fortiori to unilateral, military action against countries harboring terrorists. Whatever short-term advantages may be derived from such attacks, a price will be paid—in increased international sympathy for the "cause" of the terrorists in question, and so in enhanced glamour and elbow room for them, all tending to legitimize and so facilitate future "counterattacks."

Nor does it help to suggest that terrorism is about to be extirpated—because it almost certainly isn't. Today's world—especially the free, or capitalist, world—provides highly favorable conditions for terrorist recruitment and activity. The numbers of the frustrated are constantly on the increase, and so is their awareness of the life-style of the better-off and the vulnerability of the better-off. Among the better-off themselves are bored young people looking for the kicks that violence can provide, and thus for causes that legitimize violence, of which there are no shortage. A wide variety of people feel starved for attention, and one surefire way of attracting instantaneous worldwide attention through television is to slaughter a considerable number of human beings, in a spectacular fashion, in the name of a cause.

Although the causes themselves hardly constitute the sole motivation of the terrorists—as terrorists claim they do—they are not irrelevant, either. The cause legitimizes the act of terror in the terrorist's own eyes and in those of others belonging to his nation, faith, or culture. Certain cultures and subcultures, homes of frustrated causes, are destined breeding grounds for terrorism. The Islamic culture is the most notable example. That culture's view of its own rightful position in the world is profoundly at variance with the actual order of the contemporary world. It Is God's will that the House of Islam should triumph over the House of War (the non-Moslem world), and not just by spiritual means. "Islam Means Victory" is a slogan of the Iranian fundamentalists in the Gulf War. To strike a blow against the House of War is meritorious; consequently, there is widespread support for activities condemned in the West as terrorist. Israel is one main target for these activities, but the activities would not be likely to cease even if Israel came to an end. The Great Satan in the eyes of Ayatollah Khomeini—and of the millions for whom he speaks—is not Israel but the United States. The defeat of Israel would, in those eyes, be no more than a portent of the impending defeat of the Great Satan. What the West calls terrorism should then be multiplied rather than abandoned.

The wellsprings of terrorism are widespread and deep. The interaction between modern communications systems and archaic fanaticism (and other sources of resentment and ambition) is likely to continue to stimulate terrorist activity. In these conditions, talk about extirpating terrorism—and unilateral exploits backing such talk—are likely to be counterproductive. They present terrorists with a "victory," merely by the fact of being able to continue their activity. Similarly, solemn promises never to negotiate with terrorists can play into the hands of terrorists. Terrorists holding hostages can force a democratic government to negotiate, as happened in the case of the hijacked TWA airliner last June. If the democratic government then pretends that no negotiation took place, this helps the credibility of the terrorists, not that of the democratic government.

It is not possible to extirpate terrorism from the face of the globe, but it should be possible to reduce the incidence and effectiveness of terrorism, through coordinated international action. The Reagan Administration's efforts to get better cooperation in this matter from the European allies are justified in principle but flawed in practice. They are justified because the performance of several European countries in relation to international terrorism has often amounted to turning a blind eye, for commercial reasons. The British government, for example, tolerated the conversion of the Libyan Embassy in London into a "Revolutionary People's Bureau," and ignored all reports that the bureau was a center of terrorist activity, until the point was reached at which the revolutionary diplomatists actually opened fire from the embassy windows into St. James's Square, killing a British policewoman. Even after that the policy of playing ball with Qaddafi, as long as there was money to be made out of it, did not altogether disappear, either in Britain or elsewhere in Europe. (Mrs. Thatcher's support for the recent U.S. air strikes against Libyan targets seems to stem from a wish to be seen as the most dependable ally of the United States, rather than from any spontaneous change of heart about the proper way in which to deal with Libya.)

So President Reagan had good reasons for urging the European allies to adopt less complaisant attitudes toward international terrorism. But, unfortunately, the President's remonstrances lack the moral leverage they need to have. They lack such leverage because a very wide international public sees the Reagan Administration itself as engaged in supporting terrorism in Central America, in its backing for the contras in Nicaragua. Public cynicism about American anti-terrorist rhetoric is increased by the strong component of Cold War ideology that the Reagan Administration has been putting into its anti-terrorism, implying that almost all terrorism has its ultimate roots in the Soviet Union. Most of the interested public outside the superpowers tends to see each superpower as calling the terrorists whom it favors "freedom fighters" while reserving the term "terrorists" for the "freedom fighters" favored by the other side. That view of the matter is debatable, but the point, in the present context, is that it is shared by so many people that it inhibits effective international cooperation against international terrorism.

Such cooperation is unlikely to have a strong impact unless both superpowers are prepared to participate in it. Bringing about such cooperation will be difficult but is not inconceivable. Limited superpower consensus has emerged, in the second half of the twentieth century, on at least three occasions: in 1956, against the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt; in 1963, against the continued existence of the secessionist "state" of Katanga; and in 1977, against the supply of arms to South Africa.

Can limited superpower consensus be attained for coordinated action against terrorism? I think it can, especially if international terrorist activity grows to the degree that it begins to pose a clear threat to international peace and stability—not just as these are perceived by one superpower but as perceived by both. There is a historical precedent, flawed—like all such precedents—but suggestive. This is the case of the Barbary pirates, who used to operate in the Mediterranean, out of North African ports. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rivalries between the European powers provided the Barbary pirates with conditions propitious to their activities, much as global rivalries tend to protect state terrorism today. The Barbary pirates were a general nuisance, but they were a worse nuisance to some powers than to others, and so the enemies of the powers for whom the pirates were making the most trouble were apt to give the pirates a helping hand from time to time. In the first half of the nineteenth century, however, the powers decided, in effect, that the pirates should be treated as a common enemy: the enemy of the human race, hostes humani generis. With that change in international approach piracy was brought under control in the Mediterranean.

International terrorism has yet to reach the stage that Mediterranean piracy reached in the nineteenth century. Terrorism is a worse nuisance to one superpower—the United States—than it is to the other. Democratic societies, committed to freedom of information and having governments necessarily sensitive to changing public moods, are far more vulnerable to terrorist blackmail, and offer a far more stimulating environment for terrorist activity, than closed societies like the Soviet Union. (We are often told that there is no terrorist activity in the Soviet Union; in reality we don't know whether there is terrorism or not. But the fact that we don't know and that the Soviet public doesn't know would certainly be advantageous to the Soviet authorities in coping with any terrorists that they may have.)

So the Soviets nave no clear and present incentive to join in international activity against terrorism. On the contrary, they have given cautious aid and encouragement to some forms of terrorism (less than right-wing propagandists suggest, but more than the left admits). But it would be wrong to conclude, as most right-wing analysts do, that the Soviets are operating under a doctrinal imperative to destabilize the West. The Soviet authorities—despite their ideological bravado—know well that a destabilized West could be extremely dangerous, and specifically dangerous to the Soviet Union. The superpowers do have an elemental common interest—in survival. That is why limited superpower consensus has been possible in the past, and that is why it remains a possibility for the future with regard to terrorism. Such consensus could take the form of a joint warning that any country harboring terrorists would no longer be allowed to invoke its sovereignty as a protection against international intervention. Once superpower agreement had been reached, that warning could be embodied in a mandatory resolution of the Security Council.

We are very far indeed from that point, though here as elsewhere thought should not treat present actuality as if it were eternal. In the meantime, it appears that the United States has two main alternatives for anti-terrorist policy.

The first alternative, which seems likely to be followed for the remainder of the Reagan Administration, is to go on backing the contras and simultaneously calling for an end to terrorism, with occasional armed spectaculars to lend conviction to such calls. As already indicated, I think this policy is internationally incredible and hopeless, and unnecessarily dangerous, whatever its merits may be in terms of domestic electoral politics.

The second alternative is to provide clear and consistent political and moral leadership in this matter to U. S. allies and the rest of what is called the free world. That would require the United States both to abandon completely its support for the contras in Nicaragua and to accept, without the present reservations, the authority of the World Court. I believe that a President of the United States who had taken these steps would be in a far stronger position than is now the case to give the world a lead in combined action against terrorism and to prepare the way for eventual superpower consensus on this matter. And I think that a President who took such a stand would be bringing new hope on other matters, also, to many people in the world.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In