Many of the benefits from keeping terrorism fear levels high are obvious. Private corporations suck up massive amounts of Homeland Security cash as long as that fear persists, while government officials in the National Security and Surveillance State can claim unlimited powers and operate with unlimited secrecy and no accountability.
“Jaw, jaw, jaw, is better than war, war, war.”
I have a great deal of respect for the late David Hackworth—but he is wrong in this case. It is worthwhile remembering that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In practice you need a combination of effective stick, modest carrot, and dialog (regardless of how vile you consider the terrorists).
If I had to invent a terrorist group—something that I have some experience of—I would be hard pressed to come up with a nastier group than ISIS seem to be be. It’s as if they have developed a checklist of abominable things to do, and are determined to check every box. They don’t seem to be missing a trick. They’ll be installing gas chambers next—and ordering crematoria. These people seem to be in the Holacaust business.
They kill, they torture, they rape, they cut throats and behead men, women, and children, they massacre, they crucify, and they spread terror. In fact they are classic terrorists in the true sense of the word in that they use terror very deliberately—and successfully—as a weapon.
No, they are not warm and fuzzy.
Nonetheless, disgusting though they are, it is a great mistake to demonize them. Every time we do that with terrorists, we make it much more difficult to defeat them. We feel self righteous, talk tough, and lose perspective. Our judgment goes out the window and the whole situation becomes much more polarized.
Saying “We won’t negotiate with terrorists,” sounds very macho—but is a mistake. The key issue is not whether to negotiate—it is how.
Yes, they have to be militarily degraded and defeated, but the only way you actually eliminate the threat from a particular group is by:
It’s important to realize that there is always a reason why terrorists do what they do—and, not infrequently, they have a valid complaint. No, their causes don’t justify terrorism, but desperate people do desperate things.
We also need to appreciate that we are not innocent when it comes to ISIS. If you inflict trauma on a nation as have done in Iraq, it invariably has hideous consequences. Our bombing of Cambodia led to the emergence of the Kmer Rouge. There is a pattern to this.
Putting it simply, the U.S. has been playing fast and loose with the Middle East since the end of WW II in order to secure oil so it is scarcely surprising that our actions have prompted a reaction. Iranian hostility towards us has its roots in specific actions that we took. Perhaps the best known was our helping to mount a coup against popular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (see photo) in 1953. His crime as far as we were concerned? He had nationalized the petroleum industry.
We then supported the Shah of Iran for many years even though he ruled as a dictator with the aid of SAVAK, his particularly brutal secret police. Our actions have had consequences which continue to this day.
Terrorism is typically a tactic of the desperate who have no other way of opposing the overwhelming power of their enemies. Once terrorism start, it tends to feed off itself. Violence breeds violence, and people—some, not all—seem to cross the line until they become irredeemable.
It is tempting to argue that, after capture, terrorists such as ISIS members should be summarily shot. The problem there is that not only do we lose the moral high ground, but it encourages such terrorists to fight even more desperately. That confuses them and weakens their resolve. Given the right incentives, they will switch loyalties. Our behavior in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo has been entirely counter-productive. Excessive shackling, hooding (which inhibits breathing) and sensory deprivation—which we have used extensively—are akin to torture and evoke lasting resentment.
Such practices also tend to be a propaganda gift for the terrorists—and to aid their recruiting.
It is a much better policy to treat prisoners decently.
Unfortunately, since we don’t even treat our own imprisoned citizens in the U.S. well, we don’t seem to appreciate the importance of this.
It is also important to realize that terrorists are not homogenous. Some will be committed fanatics. Others will have been forced to join. Over time, the latter need to be encouraged to quit.
Terrorist groups tend to wither away when:
I am advancing this nuanced approach to counterterrorism for one good reason—in situation after situation, it has been proven to work.
There a number of problems to a kill-them-all approach to counterterrorism.
Precisely because they are so extreme, ISIS are likely to have a shorter life than they might wish. They have a cruel and oppressive occupational style and that is going to make them hated by their previous Sunni allies. They will respond by being ever more brutal—and the consequences are predictable.
If we are to succeed against ISIS—at minimum cost—we need to be a study in constrast.
I’m far from sure we understand that—a fact that concerns me greatly. As with 9/11, we are in great danger of making a really bad situation, a great deal worse.