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Gearing up for the war against terror

The world is finally gearing up for the war against terrorism that the US has now declared, and it is increasingly being recognized that this is not an enemy that can be defeated alone, even by the most powerful nation in the world. There are, however, still many obstacles to an effective international coalition against terrorism, and one of the most significant is the ludicrous by widely circulated proposition that "One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter". This is arrant nonsense. Terrorism is not an ideology or an political agenda; it is a method or instrumentality that can be adopted to secure any end – by criminals; in a cynical quest for political power; by ‘environmental extremists’ or ‘anti-abortion’ activists; and even in a misguided and essentially self-contradictory struggle for freedom, in which the terrorists kill the very people whose freedom they claim to be fighting for. Terrorism is simply the use of violence against civilians and non-combatants, and it is high time the world rejects and condemns all those who use the instrumentalities of terror, whatever their proclaimed ideologies and ends. The United Nations’ Declaration on Measures to Eliminate Terrorism condemns "all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable… whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them." These are the ideas that must replace the ethic of expediency and the moral ambivalence that currently prevails, and become the basis for the world’s real war against terrorism everywhere.

This will have to be a very different war from anything we have seen before. Conventional forces and strategies cannot succeed here. The terrorists choose the most unconventional methods, and the initiative and element of surprise is almost always with them. The terrorists have, moreover, spontaneously succeeded in creating a "terrorist internationale", a worldwide network of collaboration that transcends all ideological concerns and divisions. The world’s enforcement agencies will have to secure unprecedented levels of co-ordination to generate and share the intelligence that is the only effective weapon against this "terrorist internationale." The terrorist networks will have to be disrupted and destroyed through a combination of extraordinary tools: intelligence, financial, ideological and military.

Terrorism undermines and destroys the fundamental structures and functions of society; it paralyses the organs of governance and the daily lives of millions of citizens; it manipulates and exploits the democratic system and its freedoms to break the political will of nations. In doing so, each act of terror adds to the relative strength of the forces of disruption and to the difficulties of response by increasingly vitiated structures of governance and enforcement. The world must understand the dynamics of terrorism if it is to respond effectively with the combined might of the legislative, intellectual, civil, military and public forces that are available to democracies. If our understanding is inadequate, if we fail, then all civilization and all freedom as we know it is threatened.

It has become a cliché to say that there is "no military solution to terrorism". This is another half-truth that has been elevated to the status of popular dogma. Certainly, military means alone cannot comprehensively and permanently defeat the scourge; but neither can any other means succeed unless these are backed by military force. Terrorism occupies and exhausts all political space; its demands cannot be met through negotiation, because it asks for far more than can reasonably be given. It is only when the force of terror is countered and neutralized that the necessary space for political resolution comes into being. Those who suffer from a certain moral ambivalence regarding the use of force against terrorists should take a close look at the way terrorist regimes treat their own people.

In our war against terror, finally, we must remember always that the fight is not against "fundamentalism" or between religious groups or "civilizations". It is a war between terror and democracy; between fear and freedom. Terrorism must be banished from the sphere of national and international politics; it must be isolated and destroyed. All nations must realise the truth that the opportunistic use or support of terrorism to undermine competing regimes is a strategy fraught with danger; that all terrorism is evil – and not just the terrorism that is directed against our own people.

(Published in The Economic Times, October 6, 2001)





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