Governments are terrorists' best teachers

Published in the Illawarra Mercury, 5 February 2003, p. 21. The article was submitted under the title "Terrorism in the mirror". Passages in brackets were omitted in the published version; words in italics were added.
pdf of published article

Brian Martin

Terrorists have learned a lot from their opponents. [In fact, strange as it may seem, terrorism is the mirror image of antiterrorism.]

For terrorists, civilians are expendable. The same is true for governments at war. In World War II, large-scale attacks were made on civilian populations in London, Dresden, Tokyo and other cities. [Terrorists are simply following the example of those with more firepower than they can muster.]

Terrorists attack without a declaration of war. But so do governments. The United States military has been involved in numerous wars since 1945, such as the Korean and Vietnamese wars, not a single one of which was formally declared.

Terrorist groups try to instil in their members intense loyalty and a willingness to die for the cause. So do [regular] military forces, which award loyal troops who sacrifice their lives in battle with the highest honours. Terrorist leaders no doubt wish their members would follow orders as willingly [as do most US and other western troops].

[Few terrorists have weapons of mass destruction, though many would like to acquire them. Governments, though, have plenty.] United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, [and perhaps others,] have nuclear weapons. The capacity to make chemical and biological weapons is widespread. There are some comparatively weak states, such as Iraq and North Korea, which also have or would like to have weapons of mass destruction. [In essence, they are trying to follow] In their desire to acquire similar weapons, terrorists are following the example of countries with large and powerful military forces.

Terrorists use high-minded rhetoric about freedom and liberation to cloak their aggressive actions and their lies. So do governments. [There is so much government secrecy and disinformation that it is hard for citizens to know what is really going on.] There is a long history of false pretexts for going to war.

[When parents say "Do as I say!" it often doesn't work, because children are more likely to mimic their parents' behaviour than heed their hypocritical admonitions. It seems that the same applies to terrorists.]

The most tragic part of this process is the revenge cycle, with one side's revenge providing the excuse for the other's, as seen in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The enemy is dehumanised to make it easier to justify attacks. [But the fact is that terrorists, just like soldiers, are real people with flesh, blood, hopes and fears. They are not robots, though their leaders might like to turn them into unthinking pawns.]

So what can we expect from an attack on Iraq? The example given to potential terrorists will be stark: "If you don't like what the other side is doing, just go ahead and attack, ignoring laws, civilians, and nonviolent options."

We need to step outside the hall of mirrors in which terrorists and antiterrorists are virtually indistinguishable. That means moving beyond revenge killing as the solution to killing.

There are many options, including fostering greater intercultural dialogue, supporting humanitarian efforts, reforming the international financial system to give greater support to the poor, and promoting nonviolent action as a method of social change. These options have been overshadowed by the push towards war.

[Richard E. Rubenstein in his immensely insightful book on terrorism, Alchemists of Revolution, argues that there is no single solution to terrorism but the thing most likely to evaporate its wellspring is the existence of a substantial movement for significant social change. If idealistic youth can see ways of achieving their hopes for the future through legitimate channels, they are less likely to be recruited to terrorist causes.]

Unfortunately, the antiterrorist campaign is making social action more difficult, thereby sowing the seeds for more violence, thereby justifying antiterrorism, and so on. The challenge before us is to break this vicious cycle.

Dr Brian Martin is an associate professor at the University of Wollongong [and author of several books on nonviolent action.]

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