PA Times (USA) 21 September 2001
The column below was written immediately after 9/11 and published by the US magazine PA Times. You can find the archived online version here.
I was going to write a fresh piece for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but I think this stands the test of time rather better than I expected. So for now here’s my thoughts then, and now.
Tough on Terrorism, Tough on the Causes of Terrorism
by Colin Talbot
I spent the week of the awful events in New York and Washington in South Africa, with many colleagues from their public policy and administration community. It made me reflect on how two organisations that had both been called “terrorist” – the African National Congress (ANC) and the apartheid state – eventually reached a peaceful settlement. And it made me realise why no such compromise is possible with those who attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
UK Prime Minister Tony Blair first used the tough slogan above in relation to crime some years ago. A balanced response from democratic peoples to the utterly appalling events in New York and Washington has to look closely at how we both make sure justice is obtained, by whatever means are necessary, and that we remove the fertile soil in which terrorism grows.
We must reflect on what exactly is the terrorist menace we are confronting. We need to distinguish here between two distinct types of terrorist activities and terrorist organisations. The (Irish Republican Army) IRA, the Basque Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), the Irgun, Hezzbolah, Al Fatah, and even the ANC of South Africa, are or have been, terrorist organisations fighting for causes they believe to be just.
They believe or believed – rightly or wrongly – that their specific peoples – the Irish, the Basques, the Jews, the Lebanese, the Palestinians, or South Africa’s majority – had a legitimate cause. They often received explicit or tacit support from a wide section of their populations. In every case they carried out specific actions which by any civilised standards are barbaric and which killed innocent civilians.
Historically it has often been the case that one set of terrorist activities – the protestant Ulster Volunteers in 1920s Ireland or the Zionist Irgun in 1940s Palestine – have led to settlements which simply beget another round of terrorism – the IRA or Palestinian groups today. So the first lesson we have to learn is we must find ways of producing just, equitable and lasting settlements to disputes over territory and rights.
Just because someone pursues a legitimate grievance with illegitimate means doesn’t mean we can ignore the grievance. The only way to finally stop terrorism in these situations is to find a peaceful settlement, a compromise surely that recognises all people’s rights. There are few examples of where a genuinely aggrieved people who have resorted to terrorism (however wrongly) have been stopped by force alone, except of a genocidally unacceptable kind. While security and law enforcement are vital, they will not solve the problem alone.
The peace process in Ireland, for all its faltering nature, and especially the democratic transition in South Africa have lessons for us all. South Africa’s negotiated peace involved compromises on all sides, it involved a new tolerance for each other’s rights and it involved purging old wounds through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The leading democratic nations of the world have a duty to start seeking and enforcing such settlements much more even-handedly and not merely when it is convenient to geo-politics or garnering votes back home.
Having said all of that, the terrorist threat posed by attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Centre is of an entirely different order. Whilst the terrorist networks involved may gather their supporters from those disgruntled by more specific grievances, their organisations are waging an ideological war. They seek not to achieve a specific righting of wrongs – against the Palestinians for example – but to overthrow a whole system – e.g., secular liberal democracy.
These groups are just as ideological as the 1970s Red Army Faction in Europe or the Symbionese Liberation Front, or more recently the Militia movements which led to the Oklahoma City bombing in the US. They simply have a different set of ideas and a different vision of an alternative society that they seek to create through terror – that of an intolerant, autocratic theocracy.
Because these groups are so ideologically, almost hermetically, sealed against any outside pressures they are willing to commit atrocities on a scale rarely contemplated by more limited groups. The IRA, for example, could almost certainly have hit a UK nuclear power station or carried out some similarly catastrophic attack over the past 30 years. They did not, not because of any inherently more civilised approach to terrorism but simply because such an attack would have seen their popular hinterland evaporate overnight and destroyed their political base.
The second lesson we have to learn is that whilst there can be compromise and settlement with specific groups with specific grievances (the IRA or ANC), there is no compromise possible with these ideologically based forces.
This leads immediately to a third conclusion – our strategy to defeat these ideologically based groups must encompass settling genuine grievances in order to remove their ‘hinterland,’ isolate them and eventually crush them. If we fail to resolve the genuine grievances that create fertile soil for their activities, we will find it exceedingly difficult to defeat them. But we also have to realise that this is a war – however you define it – that has to be fought through to victory. These groups cannot be negotiated with – they simply have to be defeated. Their grievances have no legitimacy whatsoever and their aims are completely antithetical to the values of democracy. They would rip up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – we must defend it.
Moreover, because they reject any basic democratic and legal values and operate far beyond the remit of normal justice systems, we may need to use extraordinary measures to defeat them. That of course includes military action – preferably as surgical as possible even if it means more risk to our own side.
Collateral damage may not concern many in the US and beyond too much at the moment, but it only helps to provide more recruits and support for the terror networks and is ultimately counter-productive (as well as being morally wrong).
We need also to consider other means – for example the hijackers in the US used money that had somewhere to have gone through the banking system. There is more than one way to cut off their supplies.
Hence we have to be tough on terrorism and tough on the causes of terrorism – never more so than after last week’s unspeakable events.