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Terrorism - Explained

18th November 2012

For no obvious reason the Browser is recycling a strange 2010 interview with Lord Alerdice, who played a significant part in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. The subject is about terrorism, causes of:

For me it isn’t a moral term. In other words, I am not using terrorism to say that this is very bad violence. I see it as a technique of asymmetric warfare where, in order to press your attack against a powerful force that you are too weak to engage directly, you attack a victim who is dependent on your enemy.

The victim that you attack is not really a target of your terrorism; the target is the responsible government or organisation, so what you are doing is not just intentionally committing a crime but you are trying to create enormous fear by showing that the major power with which you have the disagreement is unable to protect the victim that you are choosing to attack, and you are also not restrained by ordinary societal compunctions. In this way you are trying to undermine the standing of your powerful enemy.

You are also hoping that they are going to respond with profound anger and aggression against you so that they lose their moral authority. The tactic of terrorism is a very specific technique of asymmetric warfare which can be used by all sorts of people, they don’t have to be religiously inclined...

On the other hand, terrorism is bad for terrorists!

What I came to understand through this book was the terrible damage done to the person and the community that engages in terrorist violence. From outside you may observe the terrible things they do to other people, but what you come to understand from this book is that there is something profoundly self-destructive as well, which is not being done because it is in their best rational interests; it is something much more regressive than that.

What I dislike about this sort of analysis is that it serves to make terrorism somehow legitimate/respectable, when even on the terms articulated in the interview it isn't. Thus even if terrorism is a form of asymmetric warfare, warfare has rules. Blowing up random people to make a political point is not a form of warfare recognised by anyone serious.Terrorism is an ordinary war-crime and ipso facto immoral: any discussion on the subject needs to start firmly from there.

The other big point quite overlooked in the interview is that terrorism is all about elevating Ends far above Means. The sort of people who use revolutionary terror to try to achieve power are likely to use it to stay in power, and so need to be reviled. Insofar as Nelson Mandela has moral authority it is precisely because the ANC largely did not use terrorism against the ghastly apartheid system (although of course they did use it against rival anti-apartheid groups). Years later the ANC elite are showing the familiar signs of doing anything necessary to stay in power.

Finally, terrorism is essentially selfish. It amounts to a few people deciding what is in the interests of everyone else and doing whatever it takes to get results. Yes, by sheer stamina and violent extremism some of these terrorists may make it to the negotiating table and end up sharing power in one way or the other. As the Northern Ireland case shows. Hurrah. Peace. But what conclusions should be drawn from that? Incentivising extremists demoralises and marginalises moderates.

In short, the case against terrorism is not only about the quality of immediate outcomes. It's also about the quality of process, as process too has values and value-in-itself. Plus process itself has different sorts of long-term effects on outcomes.

That said, if a political system creates enough stupidity that extremist violence starts to emerge and present itself as a 'legitimate' response, that system needs to change fast. Or it deserves what it gets. In any case the mass of the population usually end up as collateral damage. See Syria and, in a different way, Israel/Palestine.

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