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Does Terrorism Work?                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Mar/27/2010 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Society,

This is a scary question, but it needs to be legitimately looked at.

As Americans we reel at the vague possibility that terrorism might be effective. From our earliest childhood learning experiences we are taught that violence does not solve problems, but only makes them worse. As adults, when we see violence, rage, or the threat of violence we begin to speak of mediation, middle ground and the new phrase "anger management". As a pragmatic population the notion that there are violent people out there with whom no compromise will ever be possible is hard for us to fathom.

Our American system is built on the foundational belief, that all changes to government are best implemented with ballots, not bullets. It seems to us fundamentally wrong to even attempt changing government or national policy with violence. Despite this notion, it is easy to find in the news regular examples of terrorists who are attempting to alter public policy or instill government change using violence rather than ballots.

Whether on a large scale or on a small scale, terrorizing general populations has seldom created directly the desired effect. The V1 and V2 bombings of London during WWII did not weaken the resolve of the English people. The IRA bombing in Belfast over a 50-60 year period arguably did little to change the overall governance of Ireland. To every rule involving people there are virtually always going to be exceptions. The terrorists who carried out the attack in Madrid during March of 2004 seem to have succeeded in using violence as an instrument of public policy, altering history by installing a party in power that might not otherwise have been elected.

The March 11 of 2004 train bombings in Madrid that claimed over 200 lives and wounded more than 1,400 people helped oust Spain's governing party from power. This is one of very few modern examples that raise a disturbing question. Does terrorism work and does this set an alarming standard for more terrorism?

Although a majority of the Spanish people had opposed the Iraq war and their government and militaries participation, polls just days before the election indicated that Spaniards were still ready to re-elect the incumbent government party by a comfortable margin. All this changed with the terrorist train bombing attack. Shocked by the casualties and angered by the government's initial determination to blame Basque separatists for the carnage, voters turned out in mass to oust the ruling government party. Just three days after the bombings, a government that had been a strong supporter of America's global war on terror and a participant in the war in Iraq was replaced with a government determined to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq.

The train attack in Madrid sent shock waves through other European capitals, especially where governments had supported the Iraq war effort despite domestic opposition. Until this attack the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Spanish, Italian, British forces as well as the United Nations had been the targets of terrorist attacks in Iraq, but this violence and bloodshed had not come home.

Has forcing a "regime change" now become a potential terrorist tactic or goal? Obviously, eliminating governments that are strongly committed to fighting terrorism would be beneficial to the terrorist organizations. Can fear of the mere potential for this outcome prompt some governments to change their policies? Modern terrorist have shown that they are not stupid, if they are listening to our discussions to the same extent we listen to theirs, they might find a new line of attack presented for them.

Worldwide terrorists have shown they are good at terrorizing, hence their name. Even the terrorist who don't succeed in accomplishing any other goal, such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh have managed to create a climate of fear. Terrorists have spread fear with poison gas attacks in Japanese trains, murders and kidnappings of local officials, the destruction of buildings and property. In most of these cases whether their ultimate goal was accomplished or not, the climate of fear created reactionary changes in public polices such as new limitations on personal freedoms. Even in the United States, look at the legislative changes to personal freedoms in the Patriot Act in response to the 9/11 airplane attacks. We are lying to ourselves if we say we are immune to terrorist pressures.

From a high level view, terrorists have won some tactical victories, but they have not been able to win the war. By this I mean that none of their more grandiose goals have been achieved. Israel has not surrendered Jerusalem, American forces have not departed the Middle East, the Taliban does not control Afghanistan, and the IRA does not control Ireland. None of these forces have been able to overturning governments or achieve any of their other more grandiose objectives. In fact, nowhere, outside of the colonial era, have terrorists been able to achieve their own stated large strategic goals, as we are able to understand them.

Despite this, terrorist kidnappers have been able at times to win political concessions in return for the release of their hostages, although governments over the years increasingly adopted no-concessions policies. Terrorists have also been able to provoke government repression that is designed (but usually fails) to rally people towards their terrorists' cause. For example, terrorist campaigns in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought about the collapse of democratic governments in Uruguay and Argentina. And Turkey's inability to quell growing terrorist violence prompted a military coup in 1980. Even those these sound like extremist victories, they proved hollow and fleeting. With the installation of inadequate or corrupt governments of their own, new terrorist cells often quickly sprung up to oppose the new governing forces. Like suicide bombers, terrorist groups became their own victims.

Extremist tactics in recent years have brought both the Irish Republican Army and the Spanish terrorist group ETA a measure of political legitimacy, it ultimately weakened both groups before they achieved their ultimate goals of a united Ireland and an independent Basque state. In both cases Governments were willing to address the terrorists' grievances in exchange for a halt the violence. In both cases the compromise led to a split in their movements as hard-liners broke off to continue the killing.

Some of the more noteworthy terrorism successes in recent years at policy include:
a.) The suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983. Killing 241 U.S. Marines this led to the American withdrawal in a few months and the dismantling of the American effort at helping to create a stable government in Lebanon. (Of historical note: This was one of the first suicide bombings and it’s implied success undoubtedly has inspired 25 years of additional suicide bombings).
b.) Failure to rescue or negotiate the release of American hostages held in Iran contributed to President Carter's defeat in the 1980 election. President Reagan's bid to win the release of American hostages in Lebanon by secretly selling arms to Iran created a major political scandal that deeply wounded his administration.
c.) Bin Laden boasted in 1992 that America’s fundamental weakness was its “sensitivity to casualties. This is believed to have inspired the 1992 Aden hotel attack on Americans, the 1995 Riyadh attack on U.S. service members, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, and the ongoing attacks against Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq.
d.) The Al-Qaida inspired attacks of September 11th on international symbols of American power both economic and military.

As Americans it is easy for us to look at terrorism only in terms of the outward destruction and argue these apparent senseless acts don’t work. I believe that many of these attacks are also intended to go beyond fear and destruction inspiring and instructing potential supporters. In a world where so many may feel a sense of desperation, humiliation, and defeat, attacks can effectively inspire unity, consolation and pride. The Palestinian terrorists, for example, have kept their dream of an independent state alive even when neighboring Arab governments would have let it die. Despite being a “stateless people”, Palestinian terrorists have created a sense of national identity. After decades of violence, the Palestinians’ have reached the point where they celebrate the suicide bombing deaths of their sons creating a dangerous trend for the future.

As an organization Al-Qaida also uses violence and destruction for motivation. Every attack is a recruiting tool for new terrorists and new money, and a demonstration of its power and prowess along with showing its foes' weakness. In this manner they incite and galvanize Muslims extremist throughout the world to embrace its version of jihad as perpetual warfare with the infidel. Al-Qaida appears to be attempting to inspire on a global scale what Palestinian terrorism achieved locally, a continuing campaign of terror and destruction bent on making ordinary life untenable with all the related consequences.

Now back to the initial question, “does terrorism work?” The obvious answer is a resounding yes and no. In all society there have always been those who have grievances whether real or imaginary. It is obviously impractical and impossible to satisfy all these interest. Terrorism motivated by extremism and dissatisfaction will certainly therefore continue. Extremists are by their very nature zealots and therefore not willing to accept anything other than absolute capitulation and satisfaction. Free and democratic societies are places where everyone gives up a little to be a part of the greater group. If the majority gives up a lot to succumb to the demands of a zealot minority you no longer have a free society. Despite how reasonable and accepting most people are of others, yielding to a minority mandate is impractical for that majority of people who are living in a free society. Unfortunately therefore terrorism with its destruction and violence will continue to change governmental policies, provoke change, instill fear, and drain what is already insignificant public resources.

The real fear therefore is modern weapons. As weapons have become more and more lethal (moving from knives to bombs and chemicals) the real concern is what happens when fanatics who have existed throughout history gain access to these tools of destruction. The single biggest challenge facing democratic societies across the globe is how to thwart these impending threats without collapsing the freedoms that they hold so fundamental in the name of security.

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