Western Governments Should Learn to Live with Terrorism

The counter-terrorism policy recommendation to ‘learn to live with terrorism’ will most likely ignite irritation or even outrage when presented to policy makers or the public after a terrorist attack. Insensitivity or apathy could be features attributed to a person proposing this policy. If one imagines George W. Bush confronting the American people on 12 September 2001 and giving a speech incorporating sentences, such as ‘terrorism will always be with us and as a consequence we have to focus on containing rather that eliminating it’, most of us would come to the conclusion that this speech would not be welcomed as a well-considered policy, but rather condemned as an inappropriate and half-hearted policy suggestion. However, locating this rhetoric and policy in a ‘learn to live with terrorism’ counter-terrorism approach would be advantageous. Unfortunately, due to political constraints of realpolitik, this policy is barely feasible. In the U.S., for example, Congress would likely accuse the president of ‘being soft’ on terrorists if he does not pursue an obvious, heavy reaction after a terrorist attack[1].

Image courtesy of Nickel Chromo, 2007. Public Domain.
Image courtesy of Nickel Chromo, 2007. Public Domain.

The first point to acknowledge is that terrorism has been around for centuries and, most likely, will always be with us. Following this thought, one should move away from depicting terrorist attacks as something highly unusual or exceptional which requires an exceptional response (like a military attack), but rather should concentrate on fighting terrorism with intelligence-led police operations.

Furthermore, politicians must tone down their rhetoric. This should happen in three ways. First of all, they must not succumb to calling terrorists barbaric and hence denying any rationality behind terrorist acts. Secondly, they have to admit that there is no way to completely prevent terrorist attacks. And thirdly, bipolar narratives only feed into the narratives terrorist groups formulate. In other words, when John Kerry called the conflict with ISIS a conflict, ‘between civilization itself and barbarism’, he served mostly as a propaganda tool for the enemy he wants to destroy. Similarly, when George W. Bush and more recently Francois Holland picture themselves as being engaged in a war on terror defined as a battle of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’, they have taken on the narrative the terrorists themselves formulated.

Starting with the first point, policy makers should acknowledge that no matter how brutal and seemingly barbaric terrorist attacks can be, even the most recent attacks in Paris had a logic behind them. The terrorists made use of a method already used by several other terrorists groups throughout history. They use shocking attacks to ignite a psychological impact beyond the immediate victims. Terrorism is intended to terrorize and designed to communicate a message to a wider population. Al-Qaeda and ISIS both formulate the overall goal to free the Islamic world from Western domination. Hereby they can build on various examples starting from US troops in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. They use terrorist methods in their strategy which identifies terrorism in the Clausewitzian sense of war-like pressure: ‘if your component is to be made to comply with your will, you must place him in a situation which is more oppressing to him, than the sacrifice you demand.’[2]. This means although the attacks themselves can be judged as brutal violence against civilians, in terms of countering terrorism it does not help in any way to fall back on a crazy brutal response like the war on terror which declared to eradicate terrorism. Instead, one has to focus on containing terrorism.

In addition, it is crucial to put the victim numbers of terrorist attacks in context. One should not forget the psychological dimension of terrorist attacks and therefore, governments should not only protect their citizens from the physical threat posed by terrorism but also from its psychological effects. For example, the increase in a state of fear through a language of national security by government officials is seen as profoundly counter-productive[3]. At this point, it is inevitable to warn the media and furthermore to put terrorism in context: to check the likelihood of death by a terrorist attack. Unsurprisingly, there is a disproportionate fear in the West of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack. While admitting that the threat from terrorism is serious not only because of the physical damage it can do but also because it challenges the authority and competence of government, the threat must also be kept in perspective. According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Centre, since 2004, four Americans have died in the U.S. as a result of terrorism. By contrast, in 2006 alone, 18,573 people were victims of homicide in the U.S. Firearms accounted for 30,896, while 21,647 died as a result of falls. Since the 2001 attacks, other extremist plots have been uncovered. If the ‘shoe bomber’, Richard Reid, had been successful in 2001, 197 people would probably have been killed. Abdulmutallab could have killed 289 people. However, none succeeded. These numbers lead to the conclusion that intelligence-led police operations are crucial in countering terrorism, but scaremongering is not. In another way, the governmental response to terrorism is in a sense more important than the attack itself. The prolonged negative consequences from these policy decision are very well captured in the assessment that, ‘despite the extraordinary efforts and resources devoted to the twenty-first century War on Terror, the reality is that terrorist attacks and threats have not diminished in the post-9/11 period’[4].

Furthermore, the notion that the state could either eliminate or keep terrorist suspects under 24-hor surveillance is outright unrealistic. Nigel Inkster, who has worked at the MI6 for 31 years, calls this idea ‘pure fantasy’ because in order to keep a single terrorist suspects under surveillance 24/7 would require about 30 police men alone. Furthermore, so-called ‘lone wolf attacks’ are almost impossible to detect beforehand because they are inspired by bigger movements but in the end act all by themselves. Bigger organizations more easily infiltrated or taken under surveillance, but individuals without previous convictions who turn to terrorism are basically impossible to detect.

To sum up, the most important consideration here should be what will be most effective in reducing the risk of extremist terrorism in the long-term.  The abandonment of ordinary standards of criminal justice in cases of terrorism and opting for military measures instead is often times counterproductive. It is surely not inspiring for radicalized people with the potential for violent action to see terrorists tried in ordinary criminal courts and sentenced to long prison terms because this barely lives up to the martyrdom they had in mind. But it surely is inspiring to them to see terrorists treated as a special class of prisoners to be held by the military, imprisoned without trial and tortured. In the end, democratic values of freedom and justice are the western world’s best advertisement and departures from such values have damaged the West’s international reputation. The oft-quoted saying of Benjamin Franklin is worth repeating: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” As a result, a ‘learning to live with terrorism’ policy which focuses on police-led intelligence and composed media responses as well as a depressed but reasonable rhetoric from political figures instead of war rhetoric aiming at the overall elimination of terrorism, would be the best response to terrorism in the West.

[1] Martha Crenshaw (2001) Counterterrorism Policy and the Political Process

[2] English (2009) Terrorism: How to Respond

[3] Silke (2011) The Psychology of Counter-Terrorism

[4] English (2009) Terrorism: How to Respond

Leave a Reply