Barely 21 months after the Marathon bombers made “Boston Strong” a household phrase, we now have “Je Suis Charlie.” Amid a deluge of strong emotions and sloppy thinking, I offer some reflections on points that I believe we must resolve, lest our lives become permanently unhinged by “terrorism.”
We Should Define Terms. Are “terror” and “terrorism” really helpful terms? Too often, they are self-serving labels that mean merely “violence we do not like.” These terms can apply to so many events that we can end up wondering what they all have in common. Think of the lynchings of blacks across the United States 1900-1955, attacks by Zionists in mid-1940s Palestine, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing, the school attacks at Newtown and Columbine, the IRA in Northern Ireland from 1969 to the Good Friday accords, the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof, and Munich Olympic attackers in the 1970s, the death squads in El Salvador and the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the bombers of New York (1993), and Paris (1995 and 1996), the 9/11 attacks, the sarin gas attacks in Japan, U.S. drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, Boko Haram abductions and massacres, et cetera, et cetera.
If we’re going to use these terms, we should define them consistently. But we seldom do.
Ends and means. For me, terrorism is a tactic that uses violence to generate fear to gain some goal. So the goal (whenever it is) is the end, and terror tactics are the means. Often those goals are claimed to be high-minded political or religious causes (whether it is the surrender of Japan on the establishment of Sharia law) which are “supposed” to justify the terror tactics.
But Catholicism has long taught that the ends never justify the means. This clarifies our notion of terrorism, since we object to the means of terror regardless of the goals. We don’t care if the attackers are capitalist or communist, Christian or Jew or Muslim. We don’t care if they seek a classless society or the end of World War II or peace or freedom or justice or heaven on earth. We only care that their tactics are evil.
Equal Opportunity Tactics. This also means that anyone can be guilty of terrorism. It can be a deranged individual like Timothy McVeigh, it can be radicalized brothers like the Tsarnaevs in Boston or the Kouachis in Paris. It can be a tribe, a cell, a movement, a radical organization, a quasi-military militia, a political or religious party, or even a government.
By their tactics you shall know them, whether you regard them as friend or foe, good guys or bad guys. Trying to distinguish between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” who use the same tactics—as if there is “good” terrorism and “bad” terrorism--only leads us to a double standard.
Double Standards. Even the Paris killings reflect this problem of double standards.
Few people support absolute free speech with no limits, and this can lead to a double standard. In the name of free speech, blasphemy is allowed in France, so Charlie Hebdo is honored and protected. But “hate speech” is not allowed, so the UPI reported that:
Fifty-four people were arrested Wednesday after the French government ordered a crackdown on hate speech and the glorification of terrorism.
And the International Business Times detailed the government’s rationale:
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said hate speech has to be fought with the "utmost vigor," urging prosecutors to act quickly against those who condone terrorism or carry out racist or anti-Semitic acts. Prime Minister Manuel Valls added that freedom of speech should not be confused with anti-Semitism, racism and Holocaust denial.
Of course, this just heightens the hostility between Muslims and Jews (who appear to receive special treatment--it seems even Charlie Hebdo had avoided satirizing Jews).
In fact, most “free speech” champions make exceptions that create a double standard. It is a crime in many European countries to deny the Holocaust. It is a crime in the U.S. to commit “hate speech” against gays, blacks, Jews. These exceptions to free speech reflect the history of these countries. But they are still double standards. To prohibit these forms of speech while allowing blasphemy (an offense which reflects the history of OTHER countries) is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical. And when such hypocrisy enables blasphemy that offends even moderates, that only undermines their moderation and makes us riper targets for fanatics willing to use terror tactics.
And there is a third double standard. It focuses on threats to the West but overlooks attacks elsewhere, as if only western lives matter. The same week when 17 Parisians were killed, Time Magazine reported that Boko Haram “murdered up to 2,000 civilians” in Baga, Nigeria, and a few a days later “used a 10-year old girl as a suicide bomber to kill at least 16 people at a market.” It goes without saying which tragedy commanded more attention.
Granted, we took the Paris attacks as attacks on western values that are “sacred” to us--but are we surprised if the southern hemisphere concludes that we care less about their lives? And do we really believe that sending that message helps us fight such violence?
Blaming Religion Honors the Terrorists. I am increasingly weary of media references to “jihadists” and “radical Islamists” etc. Yes, these people claim to act in the name of Islam--but why do we honor their claim? It is a false claim, and it provides them cover to rationalize their atrocities to others. At the same time, it pits people of different faiths against each other.
Thus Pope Francis has urged all religious leaders to denounce any such violence, saying “To kill in the name of God is an aberration”:
For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war. We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed.…
I express my hope that religious, political and intellectual leaders, especially those of the Muslim community, will condemn all fundamentalist and extremist interpretations of religion which attempt to justify such acts of violence.
Thus it is not just the violence we condemn, but also the hijacking of religion itself. No terrorists represent authentic Islam. This was made crystal clear by Malek Merabet, as the brother of Ahmed Merabet, one of the police officers killed in Paris:
Islam is a religion of peace, love and sharing. It's not about terrorism, it's not about madness…My brother was a Muslim and he was killed by people pretending to be Muslims. They are terrorists – that's it…Don’t tar everyone with the same brush; don't burn mosques – or synagogues. It won't bring our dead back and it won't appease the families.
Linking terror to Islam only increases Islamophobia, and at the same time it alienates more Muslims. Using such terms helps the terrorists and hurts the efforts of genuine Muslims to make peace with western, secular culture. Blaming Islam is doing just what the terrorists want.
In fact, blaming Islam for terrorism, combined with our “free speech” double standard, only convinces others that we really are the enemy.
Of course, to overcome this temptation to blame religions, we must heed Francis’ answer when challenged about visiting a Buddhist temple:
The Protestants when I was a child, in that time, 70 years ago, all the Protestants were going to hell, all of them. That’s what was said. Do you know what was the first experience I had of ecumenism?...When I was four or five years old walking down the street with my grandmother, I saw two women from the Salvation Army, wearing those old-style hats, and I asked my grandmother, “Tell me, are they sisters (nuns)?” My Grandmother said “No, they are Protestant but they’re good (people).” It was the first time that I heard a person speaking well of people of another religion. At that time in the catechesis they told us that they all went to hell. I believe the Church has grown a lot in its consciousness (understanding) and in its respect (for other religions), as I said in the interreligious encounter in Colombo the other day, when we read what the Second Vatican Council about the other religions, and the values in other religions. The Church has grown a lot in these years and in respect. There have been dark periods in the history of the Church too, and we have to say that with shame. We’re all on a path of conversion, which is a grace; always from sin to grace. This inter-religiosity as brothers, respecting each other always is a grace.
No More “War On Terror.” This unfortunate phrase has caused two problems. First, it created a “crusading” climate that accepts too many evil tactics in a worthy cause: invasion based on lies, torture, rendition, imprisonment without charges, killing without due process, restrictions on Americans’ privacy and freedom. Second, it deluded us into thinking that we could “win” this war--that the right strategy would bring “victory” and “end” terror. That we could kill the “last terrorist” and enjoy “victory.”
The brutal fact is that human history reveals an unending supply of people willing to employ evil tactics--even to kill the innocent--to gain their goals. One cannot kill all the terrorists and end terrorism because one cannot uproot from human nature its potential for evil. The “last terrorist” does not exist.
Such people are criminals, and our criminal justice systems must be our main defense. Most terrorists collaborate, and collaborating to commit crime is conspiracy, and conspiracy itself as a crime before any shot is fired, any bomb is wired, any plane is hijacked. The best strategy against terror is the same strategy long used against organized crime: investigate, infiltrate, incriminate for conspiracy, prosecute, and punish.
This is precisely how French Police followed up the Paris attacks, arresting four suspects believed linked to one of the gunmen involved in the attacks. They appeared before an antiterrorism judge on charges of “terrorist conspiracy to commit crimes against people.”
But the bottom line is: we will always have terrorists. Terrorism is nothing new, and no matter how old it gets, it is not dying out. Terrorism, like poverty, will always be with us.
But this fact points to our real hope.
The Long Term Fix. Nearly all terror attacks of the last century reflect the attackers’ resentment for perceived injustice. That resentment has nearly always been fueled by poverty. Arguably, terrorism and poverty go hand in hand: the more poverty, the more terrorism--and the less poverty, the less terror.
This premise cries out for urgent consideration. For it implies that the trillions we spend on military invasions are futile--and worse, they preclude our chance to spend such resources on reducing poverty. If the links between terror attacks and poverty are compelling--and I believe they are (just look at profiles of suicide bombers)--then attacking poverty becomes our number one weapon, our number one hope, against terrorism.
The Prospects? These reflections do not leave me optimistic. I fear we will continue to define “terrorism” sloppily, continue to follow hypocritical double standards, continue to blame religions and alienate others, continue to criticize people’s goals instead of condemning their tactics, continue to condemn radical parties while exempting governments, continue to pretend we can “wage war” to end terrorism, and continue to waste both money and lives in that futile pursuit. We will continue to praise “our warriors” who “protect us.” And we will continue blindly blundering along with strategies and tactics that will guarantee that our situation, already unmistakably worse since 9/11 due to such blundering, will deteriorate even further.
That is, it will continue to worsen unless we begin to heed the voice of reason. But who speaks that voice today? And who is listening?
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015