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The Challenge of Terror

The Challenge of Terror

In the aftermath of recent attacks, including those in Beirut, in Paris, and apparently against a Russian airliner, and with deep respect to those who have suffered in result, a few thoughts.

It is really important to remember several things about terrorism, recently and historically. Terrorists are not able to use conventional military strength OR mass protest directly to achieve their goals. They turn to terrorism, often with great cunning, out of weakness (whatever the quality of their larger goals). They really have no chance of winning unless the societies they attack essentially undermine themselves through some distortion in response, either through excessive fear or political manipulation of fear.

We have at least one reasonably clear example of this result, where history does provide one of those lessons where the past should not be repeated. One of the first crests of essentially modern terrorism occurred in tsarist Russia in the 1880s, after a period of reform which was not, however, nearly extensive enough to please radical anarchists. A bomb killed the reformist tsar, and in response the Russian regime essentially reversed recent course and decided on a policy of repression. Their success was short-lived, in a regime that was on shaky grounds even with the reform effort. Repression led to further and more fundamental agitation, and ultimately – spurred by wider difficulties – a modest and then a fundamental revolution (1905 and 1917 respectively). The anarchists did not exactly win, but they did succeed in prompting moves that unseated the regime they detested.

So terrorism can topple systems – but only if the systems cooperate by overreaction; and this result, to date, is happily rare.

And a few other, more recent historical musings. Renewed terrorism must of course prompt appropriate security reactions, and we can hope that they will be successful without producing a tsarist-type irony. But should terrorism hit, I also think we can learn from more contemporary American and other reactions. Don’t, in an excess of security mindedness, conceal the nation’s leader – this is an understandable response, but it clearly deepens fear and therefore irrationality. Don’t, out of the same impulse, urge people to stay home. Fears will thrive on isolation and a sense of impotence; it’s far better to take a few risks and engage with others in public demonstrations and solidarity. Responses recently in France and Afghanistan, and a few years ago in Spain and Britain, suggest this quite clearly.

And finally, whatever the zeal for vengeance, do not make major diplomatic or military commitments as part of a proximate response. The short-term results may comfort, and may mute partisan attack back home, but they can sorely mislead. Neither vengeance nor fear is a solid base for policy, and this is a recent history lesson that should by now be abundantly clear—if difficult to assimilate.

Attacks of the sort so many parts of the world have experienced over the past 15 years inevitably tempt some – as in the wake of 9/11 in the United States – to go back to a model of the future proposed as the Cold War drew to a close: the model based on a deep and durable “clash of civilizations.” Various groups, whether as terrorists or responders to terrorism, clearly hope to make the model a reality. In fact, the model is improbable, in a world where, despite massive challenges, global collaboration offers far more benefits. In fact, it’s a model that becomes conceivable only as a self-fulfilling, and quite chilling, prophecy. And this, above all, in the future we – the world’s massive majority – must not permit, whatever the grievous provocations.