Ethics & Public Policy Center

Understanding Terrorism



In his revised 1987 study The Age of Terrorism, Walter Laqueur of the Center for Strategic and International Studies identified eleven misconceptions about terrorism whose ubiquity in the press and among government officials helps explain some of our present confusion on the subject. Pondering Laqueur’s Dirty Almost-Dozen is a good way to start thinking about the problem of terrorism today.

 

Mistake #1. Terrorism is a new phenomenon with few historical precedents, and there is little to be learned from what meager antecedents may be found.

 

Not true. Modern technology, writes Laqueur, has “made a great difference as far as the character of terrorist operations is concerned.” But the basic moral, political, and legal issues involved in terrorism are “anything but new,” and the use of assassination and political murder as an instrument for achieving political aims has a long, bloody pedigree. Moreover, there is little in contemporary terrorist rhetoric and “logic” that was not presaged in the previous century.

The metaphysics of modern terrorism—what Laqueur dubs the “philosophy of the bomb”—was first embodied by the Narodnaya Volya, a nineteenth-century Russian revolutionary clique whose three years of terror culminated in the assassination of the reformist czar Alexander II in 1881; a second Russian group, the Social Revolutionary Party, conducted a campaign of bombing and assassination from 1902 until 1911. The doctrine that shaped these movements was first propounded by the German radical Karl Heinzen (1809-1880), whose moral theology was desperately deficient: according to Laqueur, Heinzen “argued that while murder was forbidden in principle this prohibition did not apply to politics.” Heinzen began his career by trying to justify tyrannicide. But it proved impossible to stop there, and as he later wrote, “If you have to blow up half a continent and pour out a sea of blood in order to destroy the party of the barbarians, have no scruples of conscience.” To Heinzen’s way of thinking, the revolutions of 1848 had failed because the revolutionaries had been insufficiently ruthless. And like Johann Most— another German radical who emigrated to the more hospitable United States—Heinzen hoped that technology, and specifically new explosives like dynamite, would compensate for what was lacking in the willpower of the laggardly masses. Most, inventor of the letter bomb and other terrorist refinements, was a quondam laborer in a Jersey City Heights (!) explosives factory who extolled “propaganda by deed” in his newspaper, Freiheit; there, he anticipated twentieth-century revolutionary rhetoric by describing the enemies of the working class as “pigs, dogs, bestial monsters, devils in human shape, reptiles, parasites, scum,” and so forth.

Then there were the extremists who used terrorist methods in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish, Macedonian, Serbian, and Armenian national liberation movements. Anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist terrorism was also part of the early history of the labor movement in the United States, as it was in Spain, Portugal, and Italy (Spanish workers seeking higher wages were given to blowing up their factories during World War I). Thus terrorism is not exactly a novum, however the motivations and the technological capabilities of terrorists have changed. Too narrow a focus on the distinctiveness of terrorism today can obscure some useful lessons from the past.

 

Mistake #2. Terrorism is the single most pressing issue on the international agenda, a “cancer of the modern world.”

 

Perhaps, depending on how one defines “terrorism.” (Is an Iran or a North Korea threatening the use of nuclear weapons a “terrorist state” or an old-fashioned aggressor?) But Laqueur reminds us that the incidence of terrorism actually dropped from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, and while the trendline may have turned upward in the post-Soviet period, there is no compelling longitudinal evidence to sustain the medical metaphor. Moreover, Laqueur argues, “there has not been so far a single case of a society dragged down to destruction as a result of terrorism.” Terrorism is a very serious problem: innocents are killed, societies are disrupted, democratization is impeded, property is destroyed. But exaggerating its extent and its impact plays into the hands of terrorists, whose power is the conviction in others’ minds that terrorism is omnipresent and invincible.

 

Mistake #3. Repression breeds terrorism: the greater the repression, the greater the likelihood of terrorism.

 

Not true, at least today; terrorism as a “response to repression” was more characteristic of nineteenth-century Russia than it is of twentieth-century societies, including the Middle East. Indeed, the hard fact seems to be that the greater the repression, the less the likelihood of terrorism. There was no terrorism in the old Soviet Union, and there is none that we know of in China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, or Myanmar (Burma) today. Syria (a major supporter of terrorism outside its borders) dealt with a potential outbreak of domestic Islamic extremism in 1982 by leveling the city of Hama, killing 20,000 of its own citizens; and Syria hasn’t had a terrorist problem since. Conversely, more open societies in the neighborhood, like Israel and Egypt, have had continuing problems (to put it mildly) with terrorists. Basque nationalist terrorism in Spain got going in earnest after Franco’s death, and terrorism increased in the former West Germany, in Turkey, in Peru, and in Colombia under left-of-center governments.

 

Mistake #4. The only way to reduce terrorism is to redress the grievances that cause it.

 

This is the false corollary to Mistake #3. No doubt grievances exist, and no doubt some of them involve real injustices. But not every grievance or perceived injustice can be resolved in this world. One group’s extremist conception of the “will of God” cannot be accepted by others whose religious convictions, lives, or national existence are thereby imperiled. Nor can every group claiming the “right of self-determination” exercise that right by forming an independent state; others may have legitimate claims to the territory in question, history having established facts on the ground that confound ethnic ideology and/or theological doctrine. Nor does independent statehood automatically resolve the problem of terrorism, for a newly independent state can dissolve into a bedlam of competing terrorist factions, each seeking to secure power for the future. Thus the “answer” to the problem of terrorism cannot lie primarily in the assuaging of grievances— particularly when those grievances are derived from violent interpretations (or misinterpretations) of a religious tradition.

 

Mistake #5. One man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter.”

 

This relativist cliché is both morally odious and politically repugnant. As Laqueur puts it, “there is no unanimity on any subject under the sun, and it is perfectly true that terrorists do have well-wishers. But such support does not tell us anything about the justice of their cause; in 1941 Hitler and Mussolini had many fanatical followers. Does it follow that they fought for a just cause?” Moreover, the inability to distinguish between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” debases the coinage of politics, for it brings under the honorable rubric of “political action” the indiscriminate killing of innocents. Terrorism, properly understood, is the antithesis of politics, at least as politics has evolved in the great tradition of the West. “Politics” is about persuasion; terrorism is an especially savage form of coercion.

 

Mistake #6. Terrorists are fanatics who cannot be brought under control until the conditions that gave rise to their fanaticism change in their favor.

 

This is a variant of Mistake #4. Some terrorists are fanatics; but concessions to their fanaticism will be pointless short of the terrorists’ total victory, which is what fanatics require. Moreover, the historical evidence, brutal as it may be, suggests that, while the wellsprings of fanaticism may be replenished on a regular basis, “the terrorist reservoir is not unlimited.” Khomeini’s Iran got rid of its internal terrorist problem by killing a lot of terrorists; Turkey and Italy broke the back of the terrorism that plagued them in the 1970s by effective police work and widespread arrests and detentions. Fanaticism may indeed be an enduring fact of international public life, but terrorism need not be an omnipresent (much less effective) expression of it.

 

Mistake #7. Terrorists are poor, and terrorist attacks are a manifestation of the misery of the “wretched of the earth.”

 

This is the Officer Krupke Fallacy: “We’re depraved on accounta we’re deprived!” And while poverty may have been the lot of nineteenth-century anarchist terrorists, that is rarely the case in the late twentieth century. Most of today’s terrorists cannot afford to be poor, given the costly technology, ‘ infrastructure, and communications required in a modern international terrorist organization. Moreover, master terrorists demand, and get, handsome emoluments. Thus one of the things that keeps terrorism going today is its ability to command serious money: thus the ugly linkages among fanatical ethnic or religious groups, outlaw states, and the narcotics trade.

 

Mistake #8. Terrorism is the result of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

 

The suggestion here is that a Palestinian state is the cure-all for contemporary terrorism. Given the profound divisions within the Palestinian movement today (which were evident even before the radical Islamic organization Hamas emerged as a challenger to the PLO), that is a dubious proposition at best. “Palestine” would not only be a likely launching pad for further terrorism within Israel; it would itself almost certainly be riven by terrorism as different factions struggled for power in the new state. The rapid growth of intra-Palestinian terrorism in recent years has not been sufficiently marked by the West; it is an ugly feature of the current landscape to which attention must be paid.

 

Mistake #9. “State-sponsored terrorism” has drastically exacerbated the problem.

 

Yes and no. The operational and financial involvement of states in international terrorism certainly hasn’t helped matters. Indeed, there would be little Middle East-based terrorism in the world today absent the willingness of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya to provide terrorists with weapons, training facilities, and logistical support, and absent the willingness of Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states to finance these operations. As noted above, terrorism today is a cost-intensive, high-tech business; the indigent anarchist with his homemade bomb is a figure of the past. State involvement in terrorism also complicates counterterrorist intelligence operations and raises the stakes of both pre-emptive and retaliatory military action against terrorists.

But there seems to be a built-in limit here: state-sponsored terrorism, says Laqueur, “will be tolerated only as long as it is not used too frequently and if it does not cause too much damage. If it becomes more than a nuisance, the political calculus changes and the inhibitions against retaliation no longer function as the public clamor for massive retaliation grows.” Thus far, even states like Libya have grasped the point and have declined to go beyond the point of no return in confronting the West; it remains to be seen whether Iran, to take but one example, will follow suit.

 

Mistake #10. Terrorism can happen anywhere.

 

To be true, that assertion must include a point that was made above: “except in effective dictatorial regimes.” The more open the society, the more vulnerable it is to terrorism. The more a society is committed to a broad range of judicially enforced civil liberties and judicially monitored restrictions on its police, internal security, and intelligence forces, the more difficult it will be to mount effective counterterrorism. Surmounting those difficulties is not impossible for a democracy, but it requires facing a host of complex legal and moral issues. Many other democracies—including those that have conducted successful counterterrorist operations, such as the former Federal Republic of Germany— have a less tender view of civil liberties than that which has obtained in the United States since the heyday of the Warren Court. The German legal theory (a product of reflection on the Weimar disaster and the entirely constitutional rise of the Nazis) is that those who directly threaten the constitutional order have forfeited its protections. It’s not a notion that would satisfy John Stuart Mill or the ACLU, but it helped put an end to the Baader-Meinhof Gang while preserving West German democracy.

 

Mistake #11. Economic conditions determine the ebb and flow of terrorism.

 

“Terrorism is about political power,” Laqueur insists, “not economic power.” Terrorism is less likely at times of economic crisis, and more likely when economic conditions are “relatively good.” In fact, terrorism has frequently flourished, not when things are getting worse in a society (or in an international situation), but when they are improving—a pattern that in modern times dates from the French Revolution. Before the rise of Hamas, for example, there seemed to be a direct relationship between progress in Arab-Israeli negotiations and the rate of terrorist incidents: the greater the progress, the more terrorism there was likely to be. That pattern may now be changing, but the principle will remain intact: for Hamas terrorism is, in the main, driven by passions that far transcend economic grievances.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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