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Understanding terror
and making the right choice



Chaiwat Satha-Anand

Thammasat University, Bangkok

Vice-president of the National Security Council's Strategic Non-Violence Council

TFF Associate


On September 12, the lives of the innocent and their place in the world came to an abrupt end through violence, and because this was terrorism, most of the victims did not have the opportunity to even know why.

As a Muslim and a researcher in the fields of peace and non-violence, I find the taking of innocent lives such as this morally unacceptable on the religious grounds which teach Muslims that ``whoever killed a human being... should be looked upon as though he had killed all humankind''. (Koran, V: 32). It also is unwise politically and probably will result in further consequences beyond common imagination as already evident in the beginning exodus of old and young Afghans from Kabul, and the attacks on and vandalism against Muslims around the world.

This article is an attempt to suggest a way to deal with the terrorist acts already committed from the perspective of a peace and non-violence researcher. I would argue that for peace to prevail at this precarious moment in history, the conditions necessary for the success of terrorism must be undermined. But first it is important to understand terrorism as a specific form of political violence.


Understanding terrorism - facts and observations

In 2000, there were 423 international terrorist attacks, an increase of 8% over 1999. Latin America, and not the Middle East, saw the largest increase in terrorism, to 193 from 121 incidents, largely because a pipeline in Colombia, considered a US target by terrorists, was bombed 152 times. (According to U.S. State Department).

Anti-US attacks rose from 169 in 1999 to 200 in 2000. Last year, 405 people were killed, an increase of 73% over 1999. Nineteen were US citizens, including 17 seamen who died in the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct 12.

The US secretary of state has designated seven governments as state sponsors of international terrorism:

- Iran, because of its support for the Lebanese Hizbollah, Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad;

- Iraq, for its protection of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, which tried to assassinate former President George Bush Senior in Kuwait in 1993;

- Syria, for its permission given to Hamas to open a main office in Damascus;

- Libya, for its contacts with the Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine;

- Sudan, for providing a haven for members of Al-Qaida, Hizbollah and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, among others;

- Cuba, for its ties to Colombia's National Liberation Army and the Revolutionary Armed Forces; and

- North Korea, for selling weapons directly or indirectly to groups using violence, including those active in the Philippines.

Three observations can be made as a result of the Sept 11 terror attack.

First, the US has always considered terrorism to be a clear and present danger to the international community, and therefore it has long had a policy of making no concessions to terrorists, only bringing them to justice. Now the problem has become much more ``personal'' to the United States.

Second, this designation of state sponsors of terrorism is used by Washington in an effort to isolate and pressure nations that use terrorism as a means of political expression. Now the use of force against these countries has become a real possibility.

Third, Afghanistan, which is currently on the spot, is not on this list. The reason could be that the United States does not recognise the Taleban as the government despite the fact it controls more than 90% of the country's land mass. It is considered instead a ``primary hub'' of terrorists.


But what is terrorism?

Since 1936, there has been as many as 109 different definitions of terrorism provided by different writers. The best approach to understanding terrorism is not to ask what it means but how terrorism works?

One of the most important documents on terrorism in the 20th century, ``The Philosophy of the Bomb'', provides an answer.

The Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), founded in 1928, was a group of Indian terrorists. Most of its members had earlier been members of Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent movement, but they turned to violence when their ambitions were not fulfilled. Their document, "The Philosophy of the Bomb'', states that they do not ask for mercy or compromise, that their war is a war to the end, and that the mission of the youth of India is to conduct not just ``propaganda by deed'' but "propaganda by death''.

Its authors argued that while terrorism was not a complete revolution, revolution was not complete without terrorism - that it was not an imported European product, but home-grown. A terrorist does not sacrifice his/her life out of the psychological need for appreciation or any other form of irrationality/insanity. Instead: ``It is to reason and reason alone that he [a terrorist] bows.''

"The Philosophy of the Bomb'' maintained that because of British domination, an Indian was forced by reason and dictated by conscience to go into violence by accepting terrorism. This is because: "Terrorism instils fear in the hearts of the operators, it brings hope of revenge and redemption to the oppressed masses. It gives courage and self-confidence to the wavering, it shatters the spell of the subject race in the eyes of the world, because it is the most convincing proof of a nation's hunger for freedom.''

Terrorism is extremely difficult to fight against and so dangerous precisely because justification for the terrorists' violent actions against others can be found in past atrocities against themselves, while willingness to die for the cause can be found among the present generation.

Nearly 600 years ago, the political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in chapter XIX of The Prince (1513), perhaps the most widely read treatise on political theory of all time, that "princes cannot avoid deaths such as these, as they result from the determination of a single-minded will, and anyone who is not himself afraid of death can attack them''.


Mitigating the success of terrorism

Apart from specific conditions such as organisational/technical skills or financial support for terrorists, there are three other ways that terrorism works.

First, it works by severing the link between the targets of violence and the reason of violence. Overshadowed by their own reasons for violence, the question of innocent lives becomes irrelevant to the terrorists. Consequently, those on the receiving end have to live in constant fear.

Second, since terrorism can attack anyone at any time or place, it successfully robs a society of that precious sense of certainty that allows members to continue their lives in normality. In this sense, terrorism undermines the basic foundation of any political society - a sense of certainty guaranteed by the normal functioning of the state, the minimum of which is its protection of citizens' lives.

Third, with the absence of normality, it transforms a society that mourns the tragic fate of its victims into a society of possible victimisers bent on using violence against others. It is this which is affecting the United States and I believe is changing the world, following last week's attacks.

After the attempt of Indian terrorists to blow up a special train in 1929, Mahatma Gandhi delivered a speech to a meeting of the Indian Congress party and drafted a resolution denouncing terrorism. He wrote that he would despair for non-violence if he was not certain that bomb throwing was nothing but "froth coming to the surface in an agitated liquid''. The danger of terrorism lies in its internal consequences: from violence committed against the foreign ruler there was only an "easy, natural step to violence to our own people whom we may consider to be obstructing the country's progress'' ("Young India'', Jan 2, 1930).

There are those who argue that the attacks on September 11 have made the United States vulnerable. To regain its dominant position in the world, it needs to retaliate. Reflecting this thinking, CNN put together a programme entitled "America's New War''.

Is this retaliation a case of retributive justice? Or is this linked to the repositioning of US influence in the world? Perhaps, the two cannot be separated. At present, it is not difficult to imagine the United States demanding of the rest of the world that it choose sides, either to fight terrorism alongside Washington or face the consequences.

But this matter is not that simple. Fighting terrorism means not allowing it to be successful. The strange logic of terror is that if the United States does retaliate by bombing some of the countries on its hit-list, innocent lives again will be lost. In the eyes of many, this will be considered another demonstration of terror. The more damage done by retaliation, the more successful terrorism becomes through its transformative power and possible proliferation of violence.

Because the importance of the United States to the world today is beyond doubt, the question we must ask ourselves is: What kind of America is emerging from the fire of this violence? America's might is important not only for its ability to destroy but, more importantly, because it is grounded in its self understanding as the beacon of rights and freedom. Terrorism is blinding because, on the one hand, it fans the fires of hatred and violence and, on the other, it eclipses that light.

There is no Statue of Liberty if its torch of liberty is thrown away at the sight of terror. The ultimate success of last week's terror lies in its ability to make America choose to throw away the basic foundations of its society. Buildings were destroyed, innocent lives were lost, but to be drowned in anger and the illusion of military might will not only kill people but kill the American spirit and push the world to the brink of apocalyptic horror.

To mitigate the success of terrorism, a sense of certainty of living in a normal society, both at the national and the global levels, needs to be restored. Resistance to the forces of hatred and anger that will transform the victims into victimisers must be underscored. Most importantly, perhaps, the test of a society's resistance to terrorism lies in its ability to connect its victims with the victims of terror elsewhere: be they Afghans, Palestinians, Israelis, Tamils, Sinhalese or Irish.

Creating more victims of violence is not a means to solve the problem of terrorism, but to fuel it, to make terrorism successful. Ultimately, the question of our age is: What kind of world do we want to live in - a world where there is no place for compassion, just hatred? A world where people who are different are considered our enemies and not our friends; where lives are no longer sacred but can be trampled upon with the curse of violence?

I hope that both the right and the will to choose are still with us all.



Chaiwat Satha-Anand is vice-president of the National Security Council's Strategic Non-Violence Council, and director of the Peace Information Centre, Thammasat University.



© TFF & the author 2001  


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