Monday, August 14, 2006

Responding to terrorism

How should we respond to terrorism? The standard response - as practiced by the British, US and Israeli governments (Blair's "axis of extremism") - is a combination of lashing out with massive, overwhelming military force, and a curtailment of civil liberties at home. But if the last five years (longer, in the case of Israel) have taught us anything, its that the former doesn't work - instead, it just creates more terrorists, sanctified with the blood of innocent civilians - while the latter slowly but surely transforms our society into something that is no longer worth defending.

Writing in the Telegraph, Sam Leith has a radical suggestion: we should respond to terrorism by doing... nothing:

More and more, I wonder about something. What if, after the attacks on the World Trade Centre or the London Underground, the West had taken a difficult and strange course of action, and done nothing at all? What if we had, as a society, turned the other cheek: mourned our dead, rebuilt our cities and allowed the senselessness of the attacks to stand exposed for what it was?

What if we hadn't invaded anywhere, hadn't, since we couldn't find our real enemies, invented others to strike at? What if we hadn't thrashed around like someone trying to kill a wasp with a broadsword? What if we had chosen not to dignify a Stone Age death cult with a geopolitical response? What if we had treated it like what it was: not an act of war, but an act of murder?

It's hard to see that more innocent lives would by now have been lost worldwide than actually have. It's hard to see that more teenage idiots would have rallied to Osama bin Laden's hateful flag than actually have. It's hard to see how these acts of murderous nihilism would have acquired - in so many eyes here and abroad - the apparent dignity of a cause.

Instead, he suggests that we treat terrorism the same way as we treat the weather: an ineradicable force of nature. Just as there will always be storms, floods, and hurricanes, there will always be lunatics willing to murder innocents for causes, and while there are things we can do to reduce our exposure (stopbanks, weather forecasting, better policing and intelligence), invulnerability is a fool's quest (if not actively counterproductive in the case of terrorism). In either case, the important thing is not to let overwhelming fear stop us from living our lives.

(Hat tip: European Tribune)


Interestingly, some Americans seem to be having similar thoughts. Political Animal has a post on a couple of commentators talking about the value of "forbearance" in response to terrorism, in the context of Israel's disastrous war on Lebanon (which seems to have overall strengthened Hizbollah rather than weakening it).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/14/2006 05:43:00 PM

That's an interesting take on how we could be responding to terrorism.

Another interesting take by one of my fave HuffPo bloggers Cenk Uygur can be found here:

My own personal take on the issue is that we must stop de-humanising the issue with sensationalist labels and start examining the core roots of terrorism as a method of dissent.

I believe it is not productive to be writing off terrorist activities under the blanket of "religious fanatasism" because all that serves to do is exonerate the west from any part it had to play in generating any legitmate dissent these people feel.

I have a very intolerant attitude to many statements I hear constantly bandied about by the west such as "They just want to destroy all they Jews" or "They hate us for our freedoms" or "They did it for the promise of 77 virgins". It's all counter-productive and only serves to polarise the issue even more.

The idea of practicing forbearance is just as worthless to me as the idea of practicing military might because neither of those options do a single thing to address the historical (and possibly religious) grievances of those concerned.

I could go on and on about this, but most of what I have to say would have some painting me as a terrorist sympathiser. I do not sympathise with any form of violence but I do have a sense of empathy for how oppression and powerlessness can drive people to do terrible things.

It is my belief that the world will never be a safer place as long as there are races, religions and cultures who are oppressed. Wouldn't it would be more productive to examine terrorism from that angle?

I vote that we start by examining the oppression that has been foisted upon them by western occupation and decades of hegemonic US foreign policies.

Posted by zANavAShi : 8/14/2006 07:30:00 PM

What I find interesting about this argument is that it implies a few things: 1) by definition we are not lunatics and nor are we lead by "lunatics willing to murder innocents for causes" 2) terrorist acts, when directed at "us," seemingly come out of no where are are typically acts of a "Stone Age death cult" 3) terrorism when directed at "them" is a "geopolitical response."

Bear in mind that the people who carry out these attacks could present exactly the same argument that you have just presented to themselves. Only it would apply to them more appropriately because it is usually us who has initiated or at least supported the initial violence, theft or subjugation acted upon "them."

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 07:55:00 PM

The history we all seem doomed to repeat says to me that the man who says we can defeat evil without doing anything is either an idiot or a charlatan.

It says that sometimes we can't reason. Sometimes we can't play semantic games ('death cult' versus 'guerilla army'; 'act of war' versus 'act of murder') and just make it go away.

Maybe. My initial response to this article is that it's the weak appeasing burblings of overprivileged middle-class kids who don't think there is anything to fight for. My initial reaction is that this article is pious fraud.

But who could say with clarity? I can't, which is why I hope that if you can, that you're right. If you're wrong, you might not even get the chance to live to regret this.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 08:39:00 PM


I think you have mised the point almost as badly as the republicans (not quite but almost)

I think the argument that oppression causes terrorism is one of those misunderstandings. If anything I propose there is a negitive relationship between oppression and terrorism.

Ie singapore or china or sadam's Iraq would have low terrorism, afganistan, iraq or india could have quite a lot of it. (that doesnt mean you have to support oppression of course)

And where terrorism is related to oppression (e.g. gaza) it isn't the oppressed that mastermind or fund the terrorism - i.e. it requires non oppressed people to pull the strings and maintain their atention for long periods of time (and give positive social pressure etc).

I also don't think we need to try to attribute words of legitimacy to terrorism (like legitmate dissent or resistance). To do so would be to be just as blind as the republicans are with their de-humanising. Besides - measuring moral ilegitimacy of an event by the amount of terrorism it causes is easy to second guess.

I suggest that is a major reason for the existance of terrorism today. the terrorist doesnt seek moral legitimacy from everyone but he does seek it from a certain group.

Posted by Genius : 8/14/2006 09:01:00 PM

having said that I think we can respond by doing nothing,
in fact I expect us to if we are ever hit by terrorists.

Posted by Genius : 8/14/2006 09:10:00 PM

What planet is this guy from? The answer to his question is very simple: their networks undamaged by a US response, Al-Qaeda would have then moved their finger down to the next lot of targets on their list.


Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 09:46:00 PM

If we were attacked by terrorists, I'd want them crushed with the power of God's own thunder.

I'd want the Islamic world (which is, after all, the supply and demand mechanism behind this kind of terrorism) to know that we have a lot, a lot, a lot more carrot, and a lot more stick than the guy in second place. And then, I'd say "now, choose."

I'd like there to be a point where we stop being nice, and for this point to be clearly, resolutely and unflinchingly articulated. That's my idealist position right there.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 09:46:00 PM

This post makes so much sense to me that I can't understand why I didn't think of it myself ;-)

I think zanavashi and I might agree on a few things too, however - that the causes of terrorism do need to be addressed. I don't think those causes are things that can be addressed by military power, which will only cause to create more oppression and another generation who feel disempowered (possibly on the other side of the equation, but I don't think that matters - I'd rather like to stop the senseless killing no matter who is getting killed. Of course this can't really be done with more killing).

Posted by Span : 8/14/2006 09:50:00 PM

Mike: I'd rather see people arrested, tried, and (if the approriate agencies have built their cases properly) convicted, rather than mindlessly bombing innocents and creating even more terrorists, just to prove what a big dick and how "resolute" you are.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/14/2006 09:54:00 PM

Me too, idiot. I'd rather spend the money on the butter and leave the guns out of the equation. But it's important that plan B isn't a secret. Because, we can't beg for peace.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 10:03:00 PM

Anthony: and looking past all that, there's still a core point: given the way we live now, there are an infinite number of ways for those who want to to kill people, and we can't possibly protect against them all without some major changes to our lifestyle. A plane is a weapon, a car is a weapon, hair-dye and nail-polish remover is a weapon (oh shit, I must be a "terrorist" then). While there are precautions we can take, we cannot be invulnerable, any more than we can be invulnerable from earthquakes, lightning strikes, or plane crashes. It just can't be done. And while taking revenge on those who share the same religion or nationality as the murderers may make some people feel good, it just doesn't work, and instead makes the problem worse - no matter how hard the NeoCons and big-dickers beat their chests and scream their rage.

Against that sort of factual backdrop, all you can do is adapt and accept it as an unfortunate background feature of life - just as we do for earthquakes, bad weather, and plane crashes.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/14/2006 10:12:00 PM

Mike: but your "plan B" isn't for peace - it's for making the problem worse.

Mindless, bloody revenge gets you nowhere. It just creates people who feel the same way about you as you do about them. They may not have cluster bombs, JDAMs and night-vision goggles, but I think we've already seen that box cutters work just fine.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/14/2006 10:18:00 PM

Span: preventing people from wanting to go out there and murder innocents in the first place is one way of reducing the problem. But you don't do that with bombs, and it seems to be regarded as heresey by the Leaders Of the Free World (tm).

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/14/2006 10:32:00 PM

And just to pull another analogy out of the hat, look at crime. We spend millions every year trying to prevent it, and prosecuting it when it happens - but no-one thinks for a moment we can stop all of it without turning our society into the sort of place we wouldn't want to live in. So, we accept it, prevent it where we can, and prosecute where we can't.

This is the sort of model we should be adopting. Unfortunately, some people still feel a need to engage in macho posturing, with cluster bombs.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/14/2006 11:05:00 PM

That's right Idiot, people who park cars illegally are exactly the same as bin Laden.

Maybe, and just try to think about it a little, not all crimes are the same. Maybe some crimes are more serious and require a more forceful approach. Like people who bomb abortion clinics or blow up planes. We don't accept it, maybe you do.

If it's macho to confront the enemies of liberal values, the enemies who have no scruples, then call me macho. I'd rather that than be called left wing.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 11:34:00 PM

Yanno, as I continue to see debates such as these framed within terms such as Us versus Them, West versus East, right versus left, I can't help feeling despair that we will ever be able to generate meaningful discourse on this issue.

Labels (from either side) serve nothing except to divide us even further from a path of resolution. It de-humanises and marginalises one group of people and elevates the other onto some throne of moral superiority.

We are PEOPLE, they are PEOPLE. We have people killing people and other people arguing about who is right and who is wrong to do so. Doesn't anybody else see the futility of this?

Has anybody here ever met and spoken to a terrorist? Has anybody here even walked a mile in their shoes? Pondered what kind of life experience would drive you to commit such an act?

How can we even begin to look towards resolution when we are so distanced from these people by bigotry and politics and some kind of bullshit moral high ground?

Any solution that does not involve more killing must surely require the generation of a human conversation between all the parties involved.

But I am guessing a number of you harbour the belief that they are just animals we are dealing with, and you just can't talk with animals can you?

Posted by zANavAShi : 8/14/2006 11:43:00 PM

But, the guy who said they won't stop attacking just because we stop responding is right. Sam Leith's plan is suicide.

I don't want to discuss terrorist response plans. I want there to be no terrorists, and the best way to do that is to make sure that they have no base: Make them not want to kill us! If they like us, they'll be less likely to support the other guys. And we'll win without firing a single shot. If terrorism is born out of poverty, our number one enemy is poverty. If it's deisenchantment, then that's our number one enemy.

But sometimes we do have to fight. And, it sucks, and it's not fair and it's not nice. And it's avoidable, so let's avoid it. But that isn't the same thing as running away.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 11:47:00 PM

Neil: poor choice of words on my part. While nobody likes crime, we accept that it will happen regardless of whether we like it or not, and that there are serious limits on what we can do about it. And I'd add that we apply this not just to parking tickets, but also to serious crimes such as murder and rape.

The fact is that there are serious limits on what we can do about terrorism. Given that, we'd better start getting used to the idea.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/15/2006 12:28:00 AM

Anthony: one of the best blog comments I have read in many weeks.

Mike: Which came first, Islamic terrorism or Zionist terrorism?


Posted by Anonymous : 8/15/2006 12:32:00 AM

Mike: one thing forbearance would have led to is less recruits for the global jihad. That's a key problem at the moment - we are making new terrorists faster than we can deal with the old ones. Treating it from the outset as a law enforcement problem, with the aim of finding those responsible, documenting their crime, and sticking them in jail, would have largely avoided this.

As for making people not want to kill us, I agree. But unfortunately, we have too many people who think that the goal is exactly the opposite, and that we can kill and bomb our way to security, when we just can't.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/15/2006 12:36:00 AM

Reminds me of that bumper sticker I love "who would Jesus bomb?"
Shame about the fundies on all sides that are happiest when quoting chapter and verse but manage to overlook the more restraining/civilising passages in their texts..

Posted by Anonymous : 8/15/2006 08:15:00 AM

"Treating it from the outset as a law enforcement problem, with the aim of finding those responsible, documenting their crime, and sticking them in jail, would have largely avoided this."
Whether it would work or not I have no idea, but this is certainly not doing nothing. Most people here were very quick to present how the think 'we' should behave, what should be done, how we should approach terrorism. Very little discussion of the consequences of doing NOTHING. As in, for example, if I got called a nigger when walking down the street and just kept on walking. This issue obviously affects you all and you want something done about it.

Largely nothing has been done in Darfur, fine success story that is.

Do we really do nothing against the weather? Remind me again why I have a roof on my house. Can you really compare immutable elements of the physical world with (what I assume will be) transient social constructs? There indeed has always been and always will be storms, floods etc, has there always been terrorism in the form that has caused us to discuss it like we are?

To believe human emotions can be turned off like a light switch is simply ignorant, or an excuse to not want to face reality.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/15/2006 08:51:00 AM

I agree Dafur is a prime example where nothing has been done and the world has ignored the problem.

Somlia is another case in point where the world has walked away and left them to it.

It has ended up with a lot of dead people and the fighting continues...

is this your solution that once nobody is left alive you will go see I told you so.

How is law enforcement going to help people if there is no law in those countries?

Posted by Anonymous : 8/15/2006 09:15:00 AM

an interesting and at first glance appealing theory. Can you point to any situation in history where turning the other cheek worked. Treating terrorists as criminals theory does not quite cut it. think the Taliban in Afghanistan and chechnya. If you recognise that soveriegnty you have a problem with dealing with crime within your own territory.

appeasement as a policy was tried by chamberlain. It failed. can you think of any cogent reason why you would want to try it again?

Posted by sagenz : 8/15/2006 10:44:00 AM

neil morrison: so the best response to abortion clinic bombings would be to nuke Alabama?

sagenz: invading other countries as a policy was tried by Hitler. It failed. And genocide and terrorism are not the same thing at all.

The point of terrorism is by definition to inflict terror. The appropriate response is to shrug it off as no big deal while taking reasonable precautions to avoid it and endeavouring to address the underlying causes (poverty and oppression, for example). Making a big fuss over it is exactly what the terrorists want. The number of people willing to give their lives to outrage the entire western world is rather larger than the number willing to give their lives for "oh dear, how sad, never mind".

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 8/15/2006 11:19:00 AM

CMT - nicely said, and I mostly agree. Apart from the idea that most terrorists are out primarily to provoke terror. Most are out primarily to pursue a political outcome through the use of violence. Which is exactly what many nation states are doing.
The distinction between bully nations and terrorists is almost completely a matter of semantics and the choices of technology.
A past distinction might have been that nations were obligated by international rules of war, but since these have been shredded even that distinction no longer exists.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/15/2006 12:53:00 PM

sagenz: what you might call "appeasement" was also practised by every western government between 1945 and '89. They avoided action that would risk direct conflict with the USSR and hence nuclear war.

This was mostly succesful - as you might have noticed, there was no nuclear war and eventually the Soviet Union chose to democratise internally.

Posted by Rich : 8/15/2006 01:38:00 PM

Huskynut: yes, causing terror is a means to an end, not a goal in itself. It's distinct from traditional military action in that it's used by factions that lack the power to inflict significant physical damage, so are forced to attempt to maximise psychological impact instead. Traditionally (ie, pre "shock and awe") terror was usually just a side effect of military action, not the purpose. I don't see much moral difference between them, though - the civilian casualties are just as dead either way.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 8/15/2006 02:07:00 PM

I think the history of Northern Ireland is educative. During the conflict, we were told that the IRA wished to put in place a one party (communist or theocratic, according to taste) dictatorship in Ireland - and quite a lot of IRA members did want this.

However, what they finally settled for (after 30 years of low level conflict) was basically equal rights for Catholics, reform of political institutions and amnesty for their supporters. These reforms satisfied the vast majority of the nationalist community and left the minority who wished to keep fighting isolated.

I think most of this applies today. If "the west" withdrew troops from the Middle East and Afghanistan, stopped bankrolling dictatorships in Muslim countries (not to mention Israel) and pursued "terrorist" crimes with full allowance for human rights, much of the support for extremists (currently standing at 30% of British Muslims by one estimate) would evaporate. Otherwise, we just perpetuate an indefinite spiral of repression/recruitment/atrocity.

Posted by Rich : 8/15/2006 04:53:00 PM

Terrorism can only exist because there are enough young angry people (usually men) who are prepared to fight and die for an ideal.

Kill them with kindness I say. If rich Western governments weren't so two faced and were more prepared to engage with other countries there wouldn't be the low level dissatisfaction that bubbles away, building to erupt.

There will always be terrorist leaders, but if we could reduce the reasons that they use to recruit "ordinary" young men we'd be doing better than now.

As Bin Laden said, look at why Sweden isn't getting attacked.

Posted by Muerk : 8/15/2006 06:07:00 PM

Stripping liberties has been used against terrorism successfully by a large number of what one might term distasteful regimes right through history. it is after all one of the arguments people use for arguing why overthrowing saddam was a bad idea – after all "at least he kept the people under his thumb". If Afghanistan had been defeated by the soviets they would probably be basically the same as the other central Asian states.

Posted by Genius : 8/15/2006 08:34:00 PM

Judging by the comments of some people who have posted you'd think that terrorism was a new thing, rather than the age-old political violence against innocents. Only difference I can see these days is in the response of western government who increasingly throw away our liberties, slowly turning our societies in the type of places that fundie Islamic people. would love.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/16/2006 02:37:00 AM