Sojourners magazine ran a column recently by David Cortright which lays out a case for adopting a non-violent strategy against terrorism. As much as I'd like to be assured that there is a non-violent approach that would work against Islamic terrorism, I just don't think he makes a very good case. In fact, I think his argument is exceptionally naive.
In the months after 9/11, Jim Wallis challenged peace advocates to address the threat of terrorism. "If nonviolence is to have any credibility," he wrote, "it must answer the questions violence purports to answer, but in a better way." Gandhian principles of nonviolence provide a solid foundation for crafting an effective strategy against terrorism.
Nonviolence is fundamentally a means of achieving justice and combating oppression. Gandhi demonstrated its effectiveness in resisting racial injustice in South Africa and winning independence for India. People-power movements have since spread throughout the world, helping to bring down communism in Eastern Europe and advancing democracy in Serbia, Ukraine, and beyond. The same principles - fighting injustice while avoiding harm - can be applied in the struggle against violent extremism.
At the outset he has caused me some doubt. In every case he cites where pacifist approaches were successful they were employed by oppressed and relatively powerless citizens against their own government. We find ourselves in a very much different situation vis a vis the Islamists. We are not yet governed by the Islamists nor do we have any non-violent tools at our disposal such as passive non-compliance, etc. which would be relevant to our circumstance. Moreover, in the cases Cortright mentions the goals of the oppressors were political whereas the goals of the Islamists are primarily religious. It was not in the interest of the oppressors in Cortright's examples to kill off their citizens, but it is very much in the Islamists interests, as they see it, to kill off all the infidels.
Bush administration officials and many political leaders in Washington view terrorism primarily through the prism of war. Kill enough militants, they believe, and the threat will go away.
I share Cortright's skepticism that we'll ever be able to "kill enough militants" to make the threat disappear entirely. But just because killing terrorists is not a sufficient condition to ending terrorism it doesn't follow that it's not a necessary condition. It may be that without killing at least some terrorists no diplomatic solution will work.
The opposite approach is more effective and less costly in lives. Some limited use of force to apprehend militants and destroy training camps is legitimate, but unilateral war is not.
What does he mean by "unilateral war"? In what sense is the war on terrorism unilateral? He doesn't say, but surely he doesn't mean that we're fighting against an enemy who is not himself fighting us. He must mean that we're alone in fighting the enemy, but if this is his meaning then not only is the statement false but it's absurd. There are many nations which have joined us in this struggle in one way or another and depending on where the conflict is being fought other nations will join us as well. We can't permit ourselves to think that just because the French aren't willing to help that therefore we're all alone. Moreover, even if we were fighting the battle by ourselves his statement is patently absurd. If one is fighting for one's life one doesn't give up the fight just because no one else will help.
In the three years since the invasion of Iraq, the number of major terrorist incidents in the world has increased sharply. War itself is a form of terrorism.
Here Mr. Cortright is succumbing to the temptation to indulge in rhetorical excess. Terrorism, ab defino, is the deliberate use of violence against innocent civilians in order to effect a change in their government's conduct. The United States is not, as a matter of policy, engaging in deliberate violence against the citizens of Iraq or any other country. War is only a form of terrorism if terrorism is defined as an activity in which people are deliberately killed. This definition, however, would have the unhappy consequence of making regular police work terrorism.
Using military force to counter terrorism is like pouring gasoline on a fire. It ignites hatred and vengeance and creates a cycle of violence that can spin out of control. A better strategy is to take away the fuel that sustains the fire. Only nonviolent methods can do that, by attempting to resolve the underlying political and social factors that give rise to armed violence.
It could be as easily argued, though, that the refusal to fight back against terrorism only emboldens those who would not otherwise join with the terrorists to do so and thereby increases the number of terrorists with which one must contend. Cortright's reasoning is the same that every bully hopes his victim will adopt: No matter what the bully does, no matter how savagely he beats his prey, the victim should not strike back in self-defense because that will only make the bully angrier.
The most urgent priority for countering terrorism, experts agree, is multilateral law enforcement to apprehend perpetrators and prevent future attacks. Cooperative law enforcement and intelligence sharing among governments have proven effective in reducing the operational capacity of terrorist networks. Governments are also cooperating to block financing for terrorist networks and deny safe haven, travel, and arms for terrorist militants. These efforts are fully compatible with the principles of nonviolence.
No doubt these methods must be employed, but if Mr. Cortright seriously believes that police work alone will stop Osama bin Laden and other terrorists then he's deluding himself. Consider Iraq. The police in Iraq would be overwhelmed by the insurgents were they not backed by military force. What police force on earth would be able to remove the Taliban from Afghanistan or disarm Hezbollah or apprehend Osama bin Laden or Abu al Zarqawi?
Terrorism is fundamentally a political phenomenon, concluded the U.N. Working Group on Terrorism in 2002. To overcome the scourge, "it is necessary to understand its political nature as well as its basic criminality and psychology." This means addressing legitimate political grievances that terrorist groups exploit - such as the Israel-Palestine dispute, repressive policies by Arab governments, and the continuing U.S. military occupation in Iraq.
These deeply-held grievances generate widespread political frustration and bitterness in many Arab and Muslim countries, including among people who condemn terrorism and al Qaeda's brutal methods. As these conditions fester and worsen, support rises for the groups that resist them. Finding solutions to these dilemmas can help to undercut support for jihadism. The strategy against terrorism requires undermining the social base of extremism by driving a wedge between militants and their potential sympathizers. The goal should be to separate militants from their support base by resolving the political injustices that terrorists exploit.
Reading this causes me to wonder if Mr. Cortright really understands the nature of the threat we're facing today. By far the predominant form of contemporary terrorism is perpetrated by Muslims, and it is not motivated primarily by politics, it's motivated by religion. The radical Islamists wish to spread their religion throughout the globe and to purge the world of all non-Muslim influences. To the extent that they have a political grievance it is that Israel exists and must be eradicated. Everything else Mr. Cortright mentions is, in their minds, trivial by comparison. The solution to these "dilemmas" is not hard to discern, of course. We can all simply convert to Islam and abandon Israel. That is the only non-violent solution that will appease the Islamo-fascists which plague the world today.
A nonviolent approach should not be confused with appeasement or a defeatist justification of terrorist crimes.
William James once observed that "a difference, in order to be a difference, has to make a difference". I see no practical difference between appeasement and what Mr. Cortright is advocating in his article. By refusing to fight them where they are we would be giving them exactly what they want. The situation would be similar to that of a football game where one team plays by the rules but only plays defense whereas the other team plays by whatever rules it wishes and plays only offense. The prospects of the defense being successful aren't encouraging.
The point is not to excuse criminal acts but to learn why they occur and use this knowledge to prevent future attacks.
But we know why they occur. The terrorists resent our very existence. They loathe it and believe they're doing God's will by killing us. The sooner Mr. Cortright himself realizes this the sooner he'll realize how hopeless are his suggestions for how to address the threat.
A nonviolent strategy seeks to reduce the appeal of militants' extremist methods by addressing legitimate grievances and providing channels of political engagement for those who sympathize with the declared political aims. A two-step response is essential: determined law enforcement pressure against terrorist criminals, and active engagement with affected communities to resolve underlying injustices.
And if that doesn't work, what then? Mr. Cortright proposes we throw the terrorists all in jail. How are we going to do that without moving militarily into the countries which harbor them? I don't think warrants for the arrest of terrorists in Saddam's Iraq, or Mohammad Omar's Afghanistan, or Kim Jong Il's North Korea or Ahmadinejad's Iran would put very many killers behind bars. What police force on earth is capable of acting beyond the borders of its own nation? And what's the difference anyway between a police force acting beyond its nation's borders and a military force?
Ethicist Michael Walzer wrote, counterterrorism "must be aimed systematically at the terrorists themselves, never at the people for whom the terrorists claim to be acting." Military attacks against potential sympathizers are counterproductive and tend to drive third parties toward militancy. Lawful police action is by its nature more discriminating and is more effective politically because it minimizes predictable backlash effects.
Lawful police action? What's lawful when we're talking about the dysfunctional states mentioned above? Would Mr. Cortright have urged that the British send their police to arrest Adolf Hitler in 1940?
Mr. Cortright might recall what happened the last time we did what he recommends. After 9/11 we demanded that the Taliban turn over Osama bin Laden. They refused to do so. So, what does he suggest we should have done next? Should we simply have given up the attempt to capture him?
I'm certain Mr. Cortright means well and that he sincerely believes the things he writes, but his argument fairly drips with naivete. I wish it weren't so because I agree with him that violence can often be counterproductive. Unfortunately, in the present conflict it's the only realistic alternative, for both the West and for Israel, to total abject surrender to the Islamist jihad being waged against us. We're in a war for the survival of our nation and our culture. Our enemy is implacable, and a war like that can't be won solely with police officers and arrest warrants.