Monday, September 03, 2007

A friend asked me yesterday why fighting terrorism was so important when so many people in the world died every day from so many other causes, like poverty and hunger. It's a good question, and deserved a better answer than I gave yesterday.

I think there are several ways to answer it. The Islamic terrorism that started surfacing in the 1990s is both internationalized and is focused on destruction rather than political goals. First, the high profile of anti-terrorist policy making in the world is largely a game of catch-up. Sure, in many countries there has been a long history of national terrorism; national terrorists often have political goals, and believe that terror would be the best way to achieve these goals. One can find a way to reason with such groups -- take Northern Ireland. But the internationalized approach of terrorists today and their ability to move around the world force us to think about ways that terrorists can be deprived of their recourse to "safe countries." There shouldn't be any safe countries for terrorists.

If one looks back on the statements released from Al-Qaida's leadership, one could say that, like many national-based terrorist groups, it does have a political goal - of creating a global ummah. This is a much more far-flung aim, than, say, autonomous rights for a particular territory within a nation-state. I don't take the creation of a global ummah as a real goal of Al-Qaida, but even if it is genuine, one imagines that the interim goal to achieve this is all out destruction and the propagation of fear in the Western world.

And it goes without saying that, if the goal is destruction rather than the achievement of a political goal, that this is a different kind of "war." (I know this is a contentious term; shall I call it a "struggle"?) However, conventional weapons won't work in this struggle. We need new approaches. As I said in the previous post, some have indicated that the advent of suicide missions in connection with this type of terrorism changed the rules of the game. But I think we know that suicide bombers have caused the Western world lots of trouble in the past. One could think of kamikaze pilots, and look to Chechen fighters, and as I indicated earlier, some of these communist rebels in the 1960s. It's true that there have not been any Israeli suicide bombers, and that even though during Israelis' struggle against British occupiers, their brand of terrorism didn't include suicides. However, as Paul Berman describes Debray's concept of suicide, it is far reaching in modern political movements:

"Maybe revolution and suicide had somehow drawn close to one another. The vast popularity of the cult of Che in so many places around the world took on a slightly creepy look, from this point of view. But Debray was thinking of many more people than Dr. Guevara. He thought about President Allende in Chile, who killed himself with an AK-47 in the course of General Pinochet's coup, in 1973, and about Allende's daughter, Beatriz, who killed herself three years later, in Cuba...Debray never bothered to glance across the Rhine at his own comrades in Germany - a characteristic omission, on the part of a Franch intellectual. But it's obvious what he would have seen, if only he had bothered to look. For what was the history of the German revolutionary movement in the 1970s, if not a history of people on the verge of suicide, and beyond the verge? - even if no one has ever been able to rule out the possibility of official murders. The prison suicides, if they were suicides of the Red Army Fraction's leaders, the death of one revolutionary comrade after another, the grisly panache, the riots that broke out in the aftermath of those prison deaths - these things did seem to celebrate a cult of human sacrifice." (222)

There are several points in this that don't match up. First of all, human sacrifice for what one perceives as the greater good has a long history, rooted namely in Christian if not older traditions, like hero worship in ancient Greece. This is nothing new. Heroes are always dead when they are glorified. They died in battle, so to speak; and in the modern world, battle can take on any number of forms. Furthermore, I think Berman, and perhaps Debray, mistake fighting for lost causes as an obsession with death. That is too great a mental leap. Failure to make good cost-benefit analyses, or caring more about your cause than your life is not really an obsession with death, just a case of extreme fanaticism.

So why do we pay attention to terrorism when fighting poverty and hunger could save many more lives? First, national security is one of the fundamental tasks of the nation-state; if the United States is threatened by terrorism rather than by widespread hunger, then combating terrorism should be one of the nation-state's main tasks. You might say the United States doesn't do enough to fight poverty or hunger around the world, and you are probably right. But it wouldn't make sense for our government to view American and non-American problems in the same light, even though in many ways failed states are a detriment to our own security.

Secondly, terrorism has a more widespread impact than its victims. Terrorism is designed to spread fear wider than its randomly selected targets. This fear can cause greater havoc than the terrorist violence itself. It is a challenge, then, for governments to forewarn and arm their citizens with awareness while assuaging their fears. This is difficult, because governments also need to gain citizens' support for new policies to stop terrorists. If citizens don't perceive the threat, or feel the fear so to speak, then they won't support new policies that may inconvenience them or change the way their society has functioned. So this is the government's conundrum in the face of terrorism.

Finally, I think terrorism is also viewed as a priority because governments do not want to be taken by surprise. They want to be in control of their nation's security. As they should be. Unlike in a conventional war, the battle can crop up anywhere. This control of the security situation means that many new policies need to be put in place.

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