Doing the same thing over and over: What works and what does not in fighting terrorism

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Following the attacks on the United States on 9/11, we have been in a state of rhetorical war with terrorism, initiated by George W. Bush and continued by his successors. Donald Trump received both adulation in the media and criticism over his launching of missiles on Syria, and he has announced his decision to raise the number of American military personnel in Afghanistan by almost 4,000.

The reality of terrorism is nothing new, no matter how myopic many Americans are on the subject. When fear created by violence was first used as a tool to achieve political ends is anyone’s guess, though given the human propensity to pillaging, raping, and killing each other, this tactic can be argued to have been with us for as long as we have been human. In the sense of organized acts, the Sicarii, Jewish rebels against the Roman Empire and the Hashhashin of the Middle Ages are early examples. The modern phenomenon gets its name from Robespierre’s speech to French National Convention in 1794: “If the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terror — virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.”

Today, this would be expressed as “state-sponsored terrorism.” The citizens of many nations around the globe may understandably wonder why that term is not applied to some aspects of American foreign policy, particularly when noncombatants are bombed. In any case, the use of violence as politics by other means, in the phrasing of Clausewitz is an endemic and occasionally epidemic fact of human civilization.

There are, however, trends of rise and decline. In Britain and Northern Ireland, for example, the period known as The Troubles made bombings a sadly regular part of the consciousness of the islands’ people. And yet, while the six counties remain a part of the United Kingdom, Irish attacks on the English have disappeared, resulting in large drops in both the frequency of incidents and in the number of persons injured or killed. Catalonia is another case. The separatist impulse has existed there for a long time, and terrorism toward that end occurred during the latter half of the twentieth century, but now the effort to devolve power to the region or to create an independent nation is carried out by politics as such, and attacks in and from there are Islamist in nature.

The same is to be observed with regard to left-wing terrorism in Europe generally. In part, this is the predictable outcome of the end of the Cold War. But another tactic that has shown successes is the pentiti program in Italy that offers reduced sentences and help in escaping their organizations to terrorists or members of the Mafia who cooperate with law enforcement. Colombia has just ended its own conflict with the Marxist revolutionary group, FARC, after more than fifty years and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, the result of a peace deal that is turning former rebels into politicians.

The conflict between the Basque separatist group, ETA, and the Spanish government offers an illustration of the process that has worked in many cases. Their approach has been a combination of devolution of power to regions like the Basque Country and Catalonia, combined with the arrest and prosecution of those who choose violence over a political process.

This anecdotal statement is supported by criminological research. A study done by North Carolina State University and Palo Alto University in 2015, titled, “Walking Away Hurt, Walking Around Scared: A Cluster Analysis of Violence Exposure Among Young Black Males,” found that “young black men and teens who are most likely to be victims or perpetrators of violence are also those who feel that they have the least power to effect social change.” Now this focuses on a particular demographic in the United States, but it is suggestive as an explanation for what motivates people to take up arms to address their grievances. When the governments of their societies are attentive, and when people are able to participate in the shaping of the laws that will govern them, violence is a less attractive option.

Regarding law enforcement, the example of the pentiti program also fits in with research on the deterrent effect of the criminal justice system. The belief that strict punishments are the answer may be popular, especially among the right wing, but the reality is that the certainty of being caught is more significant than the severity of the consequences.

So how does this deal with the current wave of terrorism, that propelled by fundamentalist believers in Islam? Here we have the combination of politics and religion, complicating the efforts to reduce violence, though the two impulses can be seen as expressions of the same underlying fears and desires.

ISIS, the group that has taken up the banner of terrorism as a means to achieve a restored caliphate, holds an apocalyptic vision that foresees a clash of an objectified West with our liberalism and modernity against the faithful few who are true to tradition. This presents a challenge to the solutions that have worked to reduce the variety of terrorism that I have described above. A person’s belief in the eternal soul can create an immunity to the persuasion of political compromise and shared power.

If, however, we allow that to be an excuse to give in to purely military solutions, we will have missed the sense of powerlessness that motivates some people to join such groups and more people to tolerate them. The glaring reality is that the United States has supported Israel right or wrong, offering only tepid criticisms at most, and has propped up authoritarian regimes — and even installed them, as in the case of Iran in 1953 — across the Middle East. Our assertion of democracy as an ideal would have more influence if we did not have such a history of failing to live up to our beliefs.

This is not to say that we should abandon Israel or eschew military power. But countering the message that the West seeks to re-impose itself as colonial power or as a new wave of crusaders will not succeed if the only things that we bring are bombs on civilians and dollars without any stipulation that they be spent in concert with human rights.

The way forward — if we seek a more prosperous and peaceful world — will require change here at home. Our support for Israel must be contingent on their willingness to seek a deal with the Palestinians that includes an independent state for the latter. Our support for the monarchy of Saudi Arabia must similarly be based on movement in that country to a respect for basic rights within and in bordering nations. The fear among our own politicians will be over our access to oil, even though almost all that we consume comes from other regions, but this would have the additional benefit of pushing us toward renewable energy generation.

I may be accused of offering a soft answer for people who yearn to kill me, but in the belief that prevention is better than a cure, it strikes me as reasonable to learn from what has not worked and what has and then choose the latter.

For more of my writing, including my Modern English parallel text of Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, go here.

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