The detention in London of 24 terrorists who appear to have planned to blow up a number of airplanes over the Atlantic reminds us, if any reminder is needed, of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of Sept. 11, 2001. 9/11 remains the date that has come to signify modern terrorism in all of its terrible capacity to cause death and destruction. Five years may be too short a period for historians to judge the full significance of the event, but it does offer an opportunity to take stock.
At best, it is a mixed record. Terrorist attacks have occurred subsequently in Indonesia, Madrid, London, Egypt and, most recently, Mumbai. Thousands of innocent men, women and children have been killed. There is also the steady drumbeat of terrorist violence in Iraq—violence that risks pushing the country into full-scale civil war.
But the terrorists still have not done anything on the scale of 9/11. The reason for this is worth thinking about. It may reflect the ouster of the government of Afghanistan and the elimination of al Qaeda's safe haven there.
Improved and better coordinated intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security efforts at both the national and international levels have made it more difficult for terrorists to succeed. And as the latest arrests in London suggest, it is also possible that the desire of some terrorists to accomplish something more dramatic than the 9/11 attacks may have complicated their ability to implement their plans and increased the prospect that they will be detected.
None of this should make anyone sanguine.
• Globalization makes it easier for terrorists to acquire the tools of their trade and to move about.
• The odds also favor terrorists, in that one success can compensate for multiple failures.
• Modern technology, possibly including weapons of mass destruction, increases the possibility that any terrorist success will cause damage of great magnitude.
• In addition, Iraq is producing a new generation of experienced terrorists along the lines that Afghanistan did two decades ago.
So what needs doing?
One answer put forward by the Bush administration is to promote democracy. The thinking is that young men and women will be less likely to become terrorists if they are members of societies that provide them with political and economic opportunities to live meaningful and satisfying lives.
Unfortunately, the evidence does not support this. Individuals growing up in mature democracies such as the United Kingdom can still become alienated and radicalized. A more democratic Iraq has become a more violent Iraq. Similarly, elections in Palestine did not persuade Hamas to turn its back on violence any more than elections in Lebanon dissuaded Hezbollah from initiating the current crisis in the Middle East.
Moreover, even if democracy were the answer, it is extraordinarily difficult to bring about, as Iraq shows. Building a true democracy (as opposed to simply holding elections) is an enterprise that requires decades or even generations. In the meantime, however, we require a policy to deal with the terrorism that confronts us.
What is more, democracy is irrelevant to those who are already committed terrorists. Their goals of re-creating some 7th century caliphate or, in the case of Iraq, restoring Sunni domination are unlikely to be satisfied by free men and women openly choosing their political system and leadership.
So what, then, needs doing?
• First, we must drop the metaphor of a “war on terrorism.” Wars are mostly fought with arms on battlefields between soldiers of opposing countries. Wars have beginnings and ends. None of these characteristics apply here. Terrorism can now be carried out with boxcutters and airplanes as easily as with explosives. Office buildings and commuter trains and coffee shops are today's battlefields. There are no uniforms, and often those doing the killing are acting in the name of causes or movements. And there is no end in sight. To the contrary, terrorism is now part of the fabric of contemporary life.
Another reason to jettison the martial vocabulary is that terrorism cannot be defeated by arms alone. Indeed, other instruments of policy, including intelligence, police work and diplomacy, are likely to play a larger part in any effective policy.
• Second, we must distinguish between existing and potential terrorists. Existing terrorists need to be stopped before they act; failing that, societies need to protect themselves and have ready the means of reducing the consequences of successful attacks. But much more than that can—and should—be done to persuade young men and women not to become terrorists in the first place. The aim must be to create an environment in which terrorism is seen as neither acceptable nor necessary.
• Third, terrorism must be stripped of its legitimacy; those carrying it out must be shamed. No political cause justifies the taking of innocent life. Arab and Muslim leaders need to make this clear, be it in public pronouncements by politicians, lectures by teachers or fatwas by leading clerics. The initial critical reaction of several Arab governments to Hezbollah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers is a sign that such criticism is possible, as are selective comments by some Muslim religious leaders.
• Fourth, terrorism must be stripped of its motivation. This translates into the United States and others spelling out the gains Palestinians can expect in a peace agreement with Israel and what Sunnis and Shiites can reasonably expect in Iraq's new political order. Bringing about a lasting cease-fire in Lebanon will also help calm the emotions that will lead some to become terrorists and others to tolerate or support them.
The way ahead is clear: vigilance against violence coupled with political possibility. Such a counter-terrorism policy will not eliminate the scourge of terrorism any more than modern medicine can eliminate disease. But it does hold out the promise of reducing it to a scale that will not threaten the openness, security or prosperity of modern societies.
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