Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Goble on Terrorism

This appeared in the Estonian (Tallinn) newspaper Päevaleht on September 8, 2004:

Window on Eurasia

It is Not the Terrorists Who Are Strong

Paul A. Goble

After every terrorist incident, especially after one as awful and bloody as at Beslan in the Russian Federation, both those in the country that has been attacked and those around the world who fear that their country might be next – including Estonians -- inevitably ask themselves what might have been done to prevent the attack and what they themselves should do to prevent any future repetition. In virtually every case, those asking these questions first try to identify their own specific weaknesses and the peculiar strengths of their opponents.

Thus, on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that what had happened in Beslan was a reflection of the fact that Russians today „live in conditions that have arisen after the collapse of an enormous and great state” but unfortunately a state that lacked the ability to survive in „a rapidly changing world.”

As a result of this collapse, he said, Russians had „ceased to devote sufficient attention to questions of defense and security and had allowed corruption to undermine the judicial and law enforcement spheres.” Because of this weakness, the Russian president continued, the terrorists had concluded that „they are stronger than we are.” And to counter them, Putin pledged to take a variety of steps that will lead to „the strengthening of the unity of the country.”

Both Putin’s analysis of the situation and his pledge to do what he can to prevent any repetition run parallel to those of the leaders of other countries hit by terrorism and are clearly intended to to reassure the population. But in his case and theirs, both the analysis and pledge often appear to reflect a misunderstanding of terrorism and a misunderstanding of the ability of any country to be both a free society and one that will never be the victim of a terrorist attack.

On the one hand, terrorism has never been the weapon of the strong. Instead, it is precisely and preeminently the weapon of the weak, of those who are excluded from the the normal discourse of power, who do not have a role in society and who do not control either territory or the kind of resources against which existing states can easily act. But precisely these fundamental weaknesses can make terrorism appear strong.

Those who feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain are prepared for apocalyptic violence. Those who can take actions that existing political institutions cannot prevent inevitably appear stronger than those they attack. And those who can force existing systems to change, even to change in a more authoritarian direction intended to prevent terrorism, often appear to have won.

On the other hand, democracies with their freedoms rather than
authoritarian states with their police are not only as President Putin says more dynamic and vital. They are also better positioned to defend themselves and the world against terrorism over the long haul even if their very openness on occasion allows for the terrorists to act in the short term. That is a hard lesson, especially for those who have just suffered violence, but it is nonetheless a necessary one.

Democratic societies do provide openings for terrorists – no free society can ever guarantee that there will be no acts against it -- but much more important, they inevitably undermine the ability of terrorists to carry out their attacks both ideologically and practically. Because they provide a place for a discussion of all issues, these societies take away from the terrorists the arguments they use to recruit people to engage in terrorism. And because a free and open society can act with confidence, its people are less likely to become a sea in which terrorists can swim.

Authoritarian countries, in contrast, may ward off this or that attack – indeed, their police powers are designed to do precisely that -- but they do so only at the cost of creating new breeding grounds for terrorists not only by precluding any discussion of the ideas behind those who use terror but also by providing a ready-made justification for violence: If the state engages in violence against its own people or against others, the terrorists can plausibly claim, why should the terrorists not do the same?

Almost a century ago, the great Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad wrote what many believe to be the best book ever written about terrorists and their calculations, „The Secret Agent.” In this novel, Conrad describes how a terrorist operating in England could only win if that country’s democratic government was forced to decide that it must transform itself into an authoritarian one, precisely to meet the challenge of terrorism. If that were to happen, Conrad pointed out, the terrorist would have won the battle, but if it did not and if England continued to operate as an open society, then the terrorists could at best win a tactical victory. But they would inevitably lose the war.

That is indeed a hard lesson -- especially for the victims of heinous crimes like those in Beslan and the Moscow metro and for all those committed to human rights and freedom. But it is one all of us need to learn and perhaps relearn: democratic and law-based states are strong, and the terrorists, however dramatic and ugly their actions, are weak – and they will remain so unless we act in ways that unintentionally multiply their influence and reduce our own.

Hat tip: MAK

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