Terrorism is only a tool
With the “War on Terror” we declared war on a TACTIC. We declared war on a METHOD. We may as well have declared a War to Eliminate Ambushes or a War to Eliminate Sniper Fire. I was one of those earliest Warriors on Terror, and I’m equally guilty of having missed the bigger picture during the passionate early years following 9/11. Terrorism can be used by—and is used by—aggrieved individuals of every nation, faith, and color. We should update the world’s understanding about terrorism: it is far, far more effective and economical to “fight” violent extremism by preventing it.
In this small world, we must realize that our neighbor’s troubles are also our own.
Oscar Arias Sanchez
The primary focus of this book is on reducing conflict and, by extension, terrorism. Terrorism is less an inevitable horror, and more a useful method for effecting some desired change in others. I mentioned earlier that the use of terrorism is an admission of weakness. Because terrorists lack more legitimate means of influence, they settle for violent spectacle. Each of us, by virtue of our birth into the human race, is eminently qualified to understand much about this destructive and despicable behavior. Its origins are firmly rooted in human nature.
I’ve spent years engaged in counterterrorism. In various roles I’ve been tasked with “becoming” our adversary for the purpose of envisioning and advising an effective defense. I’ve studied terrorists with the purpose of understanding them—as a sympathetic insider. Terrorists share one thing in common with every other human being on earth: human nature.
Humans seek a secure, satisfying condition. It’s unnatural, exhausting, and miserable to devote your life to unconscionable violence…unless some other unacceptable imbalance in your life compels it. This refers back to underlying grievances.
We’ll always have some need of combat power, as some adversaries will always threaten violence. But some defensive energy is aimed in the wrong direction. If we can affect the sources of terrorism in proactive ways, we can reduce our dependence (and our expenditures, each of which represents a small victory for the terrorist) on endlessly improved defenses and rising costs for force-based supremacy. We can avoid playing into the hands of enemies like the late Osama bin Laden, who boasted that one of his tactics was to count on the cost of wars to bankrupt the United States.
On the subject of bin Laden, there is no more recognized authority than Peter Bergen, CNN’s National Security Analyst. Author of The Osama bin Laden I Know (Free Press, 2006) and his latest, The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and al-Qaeda (Free Press, 2011), Peter is one of the few Western journalists in the world to have interviewed the founder of al Qaeda face-to-face. He provides insights unavailable to purely theoretical analysts of the ugly real world of this group and its former leader. In Holy War, Inc. (Touchstone, 2001) he addressed the issue of actual terrorist motivations:
“Why is bin Laden doing what he is doing? To attempt an answer, we have to refrain from caricature and instead attend to bin Laden’s own statements about why he is at war with the United States….
“Of all the tens of thousands of words that bin Laden has uttered on the public record there are some significant omissions: he does not rail against the pernicious effects of Hollywood movies, or against Madonna’s midriff, or against the pornography protected by the U.S. Constitution….
“Bin Laden is at war with the United States, but his is a political war, justified by his own understanding of Islam, and directed at the symbols and institutions of American power….
“In addition, treating ‘Islam’ as a monolith defies common sense. There are as many Islams as there are Christianities.”
I say Amen to that final observation, especially. My own pastor in a Presbyterian church once told me that not only were other religions—Hinduism; Islam—“cults” and therefore bound for the fiery pit, but that other so-called Christian traditions—Baptist; Methodist—are as well. And not only those, but other Presbyterian branches were similarly wrong-headed and deserved any ultimate punishment as may befall them.
Whether its intent is to restructure a government, repel a foreign force, or acquire some other accommodation, the raw material of terrorism (terror) is merely a method of persuasion; a voice. Some people choose actual words as their voice. Some choose the expression of political power. Some, called terrorists, seek to change an unacceptable situation by force. Behind this choice, in every, single case, is some perceived grievance.
Sometimes the solution to a grievance is within easy reach. It only requires awareness of the problem; in my hometown, if I see that ten dollars I’ll never miss can relieve the hunger of a family for a day, my options are reduced by compassion—to one.
Recognizing that grievances can sometimes be relieved by simple awareness of the lives of our neighbors brings a responsibility. If we can easily solve stubborn pain points, we should. How many thousands of little needs could be satisfied by redirecting the development costs of one missile system? How many generations of new missile systems, on the other hand, might we need to buy because we disregard little needs?
If we do try, how far might the ripples extend from our best attempts to satisfy little needs? How many others might be inspired to take little steps based on this example? Either choice can lead to self-fulfilling prophecy. Either choice can initiate a cycle of behavior. Isn’t it time we chose little needs first, before new long-range missiles? Time we chose new cycles of help and trust over the cycles of hate and suspicion?
If we address the elephant in the room called “grievance” and discover the keys to reducing misunderstanding and miscommunication; if we reduce the retaliation that springs from a poorly handled today; if we rewrite our future by learning from our past, then how many of our own loved ones might be invisibly spared from that threat in years to come?
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