Terrorism is a tactic used to weaken the resolve of democratic governments to continue doing whatever the terrorists oppose, which is usually some form of occupation and/or repression. This is one of the most important, if least consistently understood, lessons about the relationship between occupation and resistance.
Think of the IRA, the ANC, the PLO, Hezbollah, and Mujahideen/al-Qaeda: the common denominator in all cases is that a more-or-less democratic government is illegally occupying and oppressing a minority group (the exception is the ANC, which were a numerical majority in their own occupied country).
Acts of terrorism get the attention of the voting public, because they force a form of accountability for what their governments do on their behalf. It's a double-edged sword, of course, because the fear of getting blown up will drive some people to bug their governments to pull out and will drive others to bug their governments to annihilate the terrorists.
Given enough time, however, even the hawks get tired of fighting and being scared all the time. As the asynchronous war digs in, the terrorists gradually gain the upper hand tactically, as they learn ways to exploit weaknesses and leverage the occupier's strengths against it, jujitsu style.
Please note that none of this is meant to advocate terrorism. I'm generally a pacifist, and believe violent methods to achieve one's goals are unethical. However, it's possible to understand a phenomenon without endorsing it, and understanding a phenomenon is essential before you can respond appropriately.
The ANC is now a respected political party, and its leader, Nelson Mandela, an internationally renowned man of peace, but it started out as a terrorist organization using violence to undermine the authority of the apartheid government. Mandela spent decades in prison for his activities.
This just demonstrates that terrorism is a tactic driven by circumstance and opportunity. Sometimes, liberal democracies celebrate terrorists and call them "freedom fighters." For example, President Ronald Regan called the Muhjahideen "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers," suggesting that their campaign against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was morally equivalent to the Founding Fathers' campaign against the ruling British government.
I ask you: is the world a better place since it recognized the impetus for the ANC's violent campaign against the apartheid government of South Africa? Has the ANC not been rehabilitated, as it were, in the absence of the sheer injustice that drove it to violence?
Most important: during Apartheid, Afrikaans citizens commonly warned that if the black South Africans were given their freedom, they would rise up en masse and slit the throats of their erstwhile overlords, burning down houses, raping women, and so on. They were savages, we were told, and couldn't be trusted with freedom.
When Apartheid fell, the ANC launched a massive, nationwide Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring oppressor and oppressed face to face, acknowledge and take ownership for the actions of both sides, and pursue forgiveness and healing. It may be the most compelling demonstration in history that hope exists to resolve even the most terrible of hurts.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke about Truth and Reconciliation on the tenth anniversary of the first democratic election in South Africa. Rejecting blanket amnesty, he noted that bygones "have an uncanny capacity to return and haunt us. An unexamined and unacknowledged past finds all kinds of skeletons emerging from all sorts of cupboards to bedevil the present."
At the same time, a Nuremberg-style war crimes trial of the defeated by the victors was also impractical, as "neither the apartheid Government nor the liberation movements of the ANC and PAC defeated their adversaries. There was a military stalemate."
Instead, they opted for a compromise that would restore the integrity of all participants: amnesty in exchange for truth. Instead of retributive justice - an eye for an eye - the new South African government opted for restorative justice:
In the retributive justice process the victim is forgotten in what can be a very cold and impersonal way of doing things. In restorative justice both the victim and the offender play central roles.
Restorative justice is singularly hopeful, it does not believe that an offence necessarily defines the perpetrator completely as when we imply that once a thief then always a thief.
The African concept of Ubuntu is the idea that a person can only be fully human through interdependence with other humans. "If one person is dehumanized then inexorably we are all diminished and dehumanized in our turn." At the same time, the whole premise of Truth and Reconciliation was that "people retained the capacity to change, that enemies could become friends."
Post-Apartheid South Africa chose reconciliation over retribution. This was a direct outgrowth of the joint decision that the military stalemate of which Tutu spoke could have no other resolution other than the complete obliteration of one or both parties. The Apartheid government was tired of fighting, and the ANC were willing to set aside their weapons and start to broker peace in exchange for freedom.
Today, we hear exactly the same things about the Palestinians that we once heard about black South Africans: they're savages, they don't value life as we do, they can't be trusted, they'll kill us all if we give them a chance.
I cannot help but wonder whether things would be different if the circumstances of Palestinians vis-a-vis Israel were to change. Certainly the global pattern of terrorism as a tactic in response to occupation/repression suggests that this may be the case.
Today, a new surge of violence wracks the Middle East, but Israel will never pacify Hamas or Hezbollah, since they struggle against occupation, and resistance to domination is a renewable resource. Israel insists that if it relents, the forces of terrorism will not stop until they destroy Israel, drive it into the sea, grind it into dust.
Israel has an unique historic precedent for this fear. The Jewish people have faced annihilation in a way that few others in the world can even comprehend, let alone appreciate. This should never be discounted; just as it helps to respond constructively to terrorism by understanding its sources, it also helps to respond constructively to Israel's militarism by understanding its sources.
Ultimately, Israel will not achieve its objectives by its current methods, short of annihilating the Palestinian people, a possible end that would be horribly ironic given Israel's own history. The two groups are locked in what Tutu would call a military stalemate.
Reconciliation is the only way out of the impasse. As long as Israel continues to pursue retribution, the stalemate will persist. More people will die, more people will live in fear, and more people will live under oppression. (Aside: the Camp David accord was not a credible peace agreement: the plan was a system of non-contiguous bantusans with Israeli checkpoints at all borders and no air or water rights.)
The issue is not "radical Islamism", which is a perverse reaction to powerlessness, but the powerlessness itself. One day, Israel will sit down with its neighbours in a spirit of reconciliation. One day, the two sides will speak truth in exchange for amnesty. There is no other way out. Until that happens, the cycle of violence will persist with predictably tragic results.
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