Louise Richardson is a Harvard professor who has been teaching about terrorism for a decade, and who had always thought it wise for academics to stay out of politics. But the boneheadedness of the Bush regime, which has ignored decades of accumulated wisdom on her subject, prompted her to write a belated primer.
The result is, according to Max Rodenbeck’s review in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, “a book that reads like an all-encompassing crash course in terrorism: its history, what motivates it, and the most effective ways of treating it.”
Rodenbeck offers a summary of a dozen of her basic points. Here’s my distillation of his distillation.
1. Terrorism is anything but new. Violence by nonstate actors against civilians to achieve political aims has been going on for a long, long time.
2. Terrorism is obviously a threat, and the deliberate killing of innocent civilians an outrage, but it is not a very big threat. Six times more Americans are killed every year by drunk drivers than died in the World Trade Center. (And more Americans have now died in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Excepting a few particularly bad years, the annual number of deaths from terrorism worldwide since the late 1960s, when the State Department started record-keeping, is only about the same as the number of Americans who drown every year in bathtubs.
3. The danger from terrorist use of so-called weapons of mass destruction is not as large as scaremongers profess.
4. Many terrorists are not madmen. The choice to use terror can be quite rational and calculated.
5. Groups that commit terrorism, in many cases, believe they are acting defensively, using the most effective means at their disposal. Their justifications can be self-serving and morally repugnant, but are often carefully elaborated. It is, Richardson emphasizes, important to distinguish these differing approaches, since they suggest different remedies.
6. Suicide attacks can also represent a rational policy choice. They are cheap. They can be a means of access to difficult targets. They are effective in frightening people, and in advertising the seriousness and devotion of those who undertake them.
7. There is no special link between Islam and terrorism. Most major religions have produced some form of terrorism, and many terrorist groups have professed atheism.
8. Electoral democracy does not prevent terrorism, which has flourished in many democracies, typically being used by groups representing minorities who believe the logic of majority rule excludes them. The Basque separatist group ETA and Greece’s November 17th urban guerrillas started under dictatorships, but continued their attacks following transitions to democracy in both countries.
9. Democratic principles are no impediment to prosecuting terrorists. On the contrary they are, Richardson asserts, “among the strongest weapons in our arsenal.”
10. Military action is sometimes necessary to combat terrorism, but it is often not the best way to do so.
11. Armies, in fact, often create more problems than they solve. When Britain sent its army into Northern Ireland in 1969 in response to the Troubles, it took just two years for the majority of Catholics, who were at first relieved by their presence, to turn against them. The turnaround for the US in Iraq was far shorter.
12. To address the issues terrorists say they are fighting for cannot automatically be dismissed as appeasement.
Rodenbeck goes on:
Because terrorists tend to be aspirational rather than practical, their practices typically amount to what Ms. Richardson calls a search for the three R’s of terrorism: revenge, renown, and reaction. As she puts it, “the point of terrorism is not to defeat the enemy but to send a message.” This simple insight is important, because it suggests ways of dealing with terrorism: you must blunt the impulse for revenge, try to limit the terrorists’ renown, and refrain from reacting in ways that either broaden the terrorists’ appeal or encourage further terrorism by showing how effective their tactics are.
Richardson’s three R’s go a long way toward explaining why American policy has become so disastrously askew. As she notes, an act such as September 11 itself achieves the first of her three R’s, revenge. So spectacularly destructive an attack also gains much of the second objective, renown. But the Bush administration’s massive and misdirected overreaction has handed al-Qaeda a far greater reward than it ever dreamed of winning.
“The declaration of a global war on terrorism,” says Richardson bluntly, “has been a terrible mistake and is doomed to failure.” In declaring such a war, she says, the Bush administration chose to mirror its adversary:
Americans opted to accept al-Qaeda’s language of cosmic warfare at face value and respond accordingly, rather than respond to al-Qaeda based on an objective assessment of its resources and capabilities.
In essence, America’s actions radically upgraded Osama bin Laden’s organization from a ragtag network of plotters to a great enemy worthy of a superpower’s undivided attention. Even as it successfully shattered the group’s core through the invasion of Afghanistan, America empowered al-Qaeda politically by its loud triumphalism, whose very excess encouraged others to try the same terror tactics.
By this criterion, today’s Queen’s Speech setting out Tony Blair’s last legislative programme — which is obsessed with ‘security’ — amounts to another massive puff for bin Laden.