The Terror Trap: Hard-Line Campaigns against Islamic Terrorism-Here or in Israel-Don't Merely Fail as Strategy. They Fulfill the Terrorists' Stated Goals

By Gorenberg, Gershom | The American Prospect, January 2004 | Go to article overview

The Terror Trap: Hard-Line Campaigns against Islamic Terrorism-Here or in Israel-Don't Merely Fail as Strategy. They Fulfill the Terrorists' Stated Goals


Gorenberg, Gershom, The American Prospect


THE FOUR MEN, VETERANS OF A GRIM business, had only grim words. Former heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli security service entrusted with righting terrorism, they gathered to tell Israel's largest newspaper that the Sharon government was failing completely in its war on terrorism.

The problem, said Ami Ayalon, who headed the elite, secretive agency in the late 1990s, is, "We have built a strategy of immediate prevention"--of stopping the next attack--while ignoring causes. His colleagues echoed that evaluation in a mid-November joint interview. "We must, once and for all, admit that there is an other side, that it has feelings and that it is suffering," said Avraham Shalom, who held the agency's top post in the early '80s.

Insisting that Israel needs to end the occupation, the four seized attention at home and abroad. Yet for all the headlines, their message deserves a closer reading than it got, as it contains a lesson for the U.S. war on terrorism as well. In effect, they argued that fighting terrorism with military and intelligence efforts alone is likely to boomerang, creating the fury and despair that drive people to support suicide bombers.

Perhaps that should be obvious. But both Israeli and American policies, with their focus on military and intelligence responses, indicate it's not. I'd suggest that the problem begins with the way terrorism is usually described: as a behavior rather than as a political doctrine, an "ism." The U.S. Department of State definition is typical: It says terrorism is "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups ... usually intended to influence an audience." The Israeli army uses a similar definition. Those descriptions fail to explain just how terrorism is meant to influence an audience. They ignore strategy.

IN FACT, TERRORISM IS ROOTED IN an intellectual tradition that's at least 120 years old, according to University of California, Los Angeles political scientist David Rapoport, editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence. The strategy was first proposed by late-19th-century Russian anarchists in response to public apathy, after older revolutionary efforts, including pamphlets and meetings, had failed to awaken the masses. Terrorists, the new theory went, would seize public attention through their willingness to violate conventions and take risks. More important, they'd engage in political judo: By breaking accepted rules on the use of force, they'd provoke the government to break its own rules and polarize society. The apathetic masses would discover that moderation and fence-sitting were impossible. Terrorism, says Rapoport, was designed to "command the masses' attention, arouse latent political tensions and provoke government to respond indiscriminately, undermining in the process its own credibility and legitimacy."

Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born psychoanalyst and social philosopher who joined the Algerian revolution, took the notion to new heights. His 1961 treatise on decolonialization,"The Wretched of the Earth,"with its breathless preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, inspired a generation of Western leftists and Third World revolutionaries. Fanon anointed "absolute violence" as the only means of ending colonial rule. "If the last shall be first," he wrote, borrowing Jesus' words, it would require "murderous and decisive struggle." Violence "is a cleansing force." It forges the nation, which embodies truth. The dead are instruments of liberation, not shattered human beings.

Fanon makes killing a therapy for the oppressed. But he also gives unbridled violence a strategic purpose: It will eliminate the middle ground. Violence by the oppressed will call forth "mass slaughter" by the regime. And then, even "the most estranged members of the colonized race" will realize that the options of going on with life, seeking nonviolent change or mouthing Western values are no longer open to them. …

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