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Can terrorism be cured?
Steven Metz is Research Professor and Chairman of the Department of Regional Strategy and Planning at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
by Steven Metz
Terrorism is likely to define the year 2006 as much as it has every year since 2001. Years from now, historians will likely label the opening years of the twenty-first century the “Age of Terrorism.” As with any new era, we do not yet fully understand what is happening and why. While most of the world recognises the problem, there are very different views on its causes and cures.
This much we know: terrorism is fueled by anger and frustration. Radicals use the inability to attain political objectives peacefully to inspire fanatical action and to justify forms of violence normally considered unacceptable. Beyond this basic point, however, there is less agreement on why frustration and anger lead to terrorism in some cases but not in others. Moreover, there are two broad schools of thought as to the appropriate response when they do fuel extremist violence.
One school believes that modern terrorism cannot be eradicated, or that the costs of doing so are unacceptably high. For this group, the only logical policy is to “ride out the storm” by ending policies which increase anger and frustration, and improving intelligence and defenses.
The second school of thought contends that terrorism can be eradicated by addressing its root causes. Ironically, its adherents include both George W Bush and Osama bin Laden. For bin Laden and those who share his ideas, anger and frustration in the Islamic world stem from outside repression and exploitation of Muslims. If the repression ends, so, too, will terrorism. Until then, all means are legitimate when fighting a powerful and wicked enemy. Terrorism, for bin Laden and his allies, is the only method available to strike at the West effectively. “It is permissible,” according to bin Laden’s ally in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, “to spill infidel blood.”
Bush, in contrast, believes that terrorism is rooted in the absence of political and economic opportunity. Rather than grappling with this, radicals like bin Laden blame outsiders, particularly the United States and Europe. But the ultimate solution, according to Bush, is the creation of fair and open political and economic systems that can eliminate anger and frustration through peaceful means. Extremists might still exist, but they would be marginalised, finding few recruits or supporters.
Unfortunately, every approach has shortcomings. The belief that terrorism cannot be eradicated assumes that the ability to tolerate terrorist attacks – to “ride out the storm” – is greater than the willingness of terrorists to persist, or even escalate the attacks. By taking an essentially passive position, this approach might merely prolong the Age of Terrorism needlessly. Moreover, appeasement is based on the dangerous assumption that the extremists’ objectives are limited – that once they attain their stated goals by using violence, they will become responsible members of the world community.
Bin Laden’s position – that terrorism will end when the Islamic world expels outside influence – is ethically and analytically flawed. On the one hand, it would condemn hundreds of millions to live in repressive Iranian- or Taliban-style theocracies. On the other hand, the idea that poverty and repression in the Islamic world are engineered from outside simply does not stand up to scrutiny.
Finally, the belief that democracy and economic reform will undercut terrorism is based on a series of assumptions that may or may not prove accurate. For instance, it assumes that terrorists and their supporters do not understand their own anger. But extremists say explicitly that their anger is caused by the injustice of the global system and the repressive policies of powerful states. Closed political systems and stagnant economies in the Muslim world, they contend, are symptoms, not causes.
The Bush position also assumes that fundamental political and economic change is feasible and affordable – that open political and economic systems can be sustained with only modest effort – because the desire for freedom and prosperity is universal. While true, it is not clear that a willingness to tolerate the freedom of others, which democracy requires, is equally widespread. In some societies, democracy is simply a way for the majority to repress the minority. In others, stability or justice is more important than political freedom.
Finally, this perspective assumes that democracies will be willing or able to control radicalism and crack down on extremists. But history suggests that new, fragile democracies are more likely to attempt to placate radicals than to eliminate them, and that terrorists can exploit democratic governments’ respect for civil rights and the rule of law.
The horrible truth is that failure to eradicate the root causes of terrorism is almost certain to extend the Age of Terrorism, it is not clear that they really can be eradicated. To appease the extremists might be easy but may not work. To allow them to win would be to accept the supremacy of evil. To promote democracy and open government might be the ultimate solution, but it stands on a shaky conceptual foundation of untested assumptions about the nature of the world and diverse cultures.
Unfortunately, the world is at a point where it can see the danger from terrorism but not the cure. Worse still, a cure may not exist.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.