The Wrong Response To Terrorism

On September 11, 2001 terrorists seized four airplanes and used them as weapons to crash into the World Trade building and the Pentagon. The Bush administration appeared woefully unprepared for this event, having ignored a great deal of prior warning that such an attack was being planned. The attacks were immediately seized upon to declare a limitless state of war against what was vaguely described as a global enemy, "terrorism."

First, Afghanistan was invaded on the grounds that the Taliban had "harbored" the Al-Qaeda terrorist leaders responsible for the attack. This was followed by the invasion of Iran, even though there was no connection between its leader, Saddam Hussein, and the terrorists. What has become evident is that the Bush administration has essentially exploited the terrorist attacks to forward an agenda of world domination that was already being planned by his neo-conservative advisers.

What has still not been adequately discussed, much less accepted in U.S. public opinion, is that war is exactly the wrong response to terrorism. In fact massive invasions with the powerful weapons forged for modern wars between nations are not only impotent to curb terrorism. They instead promote the very conditions that breed terrorism, particularly when invasions are conducted in a way that exacerbates the global divisions between rich and poor countries, Christian and Muslim countries, the West and the Third World. Iraq, which had a repressive regime that nevertheless kept order, is now a nightmare of chaos, endless bombings and a breeding ground for a violent insurgency that incites imitators from all over the world.

There is a better way to combat terrorism, fairly well known to societies that have been dealing with it for a while, but one to which the United States has given secondary attention. It involves careful avoidance of rhetoric that promotes fear and paranoia among the citizenry and an affirmation of solidarity in the values of human life together. Not war but careful police work is then what is needed. All clues are followed up as to ascertain how the acts were committed and who committed them. International police and intelligence agencies coalesce to share information in order to discover the networks that have promoted such acts and to prevent reoccurrence.

The local cultural and religious communities from which such terrorists may have been recruited are not stereotyped, but reassured of their secure place in society. One does not leap to jailing and labeling suspects not yet proved guilty as "bad guys," which smacks of a five-year-old mentality, not to mention violating the basic rule of Western law that one is innocent until proven guilty. In short, local, national and international community ties are strengthened rather than undermined.

On July 7, four bombs went off in London's early morning rush hour, three in subway cars and a fourth in a double-decker bus. At least 54 people were killed and some 700 injured. Though the British police have not exemplified the second path in every instance, they have done much better than the Americans at refraining from making inflammatory comments in the media and stirring up fear in the public. Life in London goes on. So far, public discourse in the United States has yet to note this contrast. Rather, the Bush administration is busy trying to take advantage of the bombings to reinforce its own ill-conceived policies, particularly the war in Iraq.

I suggest Americans need to begin a discussion of how to reshape our own responses to terrorism in a way that is along more useful lines. Above all, Western nations such as the United States and England need to ask what are the local and global conditions that breed "terrorism." Why would an 18-year-old from Leeds, England, from a modestly successful immigrant family, be attracted to blowing himself up on a London subway? What despair, alienation and anger at the present world power system and desperate desire for heroism lies behind such an attraction?

How can American and British, new and old imperialists, take account of how their capitals project a power system that is deeply unjust to the majority of the world's people? How can we begin to build a more just and cooperative world that allows young people from all cultures a greater sense that they have a role in building a better future? Let us dare to ask such questions even and especially in the face of dismembered bodies of both terrorists and terrorized.

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