Goodness Armed with Power: Lessons from Other Democracies for the U.S. War on Terrorism

By Evans, Ernest | World Affairs, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Goodness Armed with Power: Lessons from Other Democracies for the U.S. War on Terrorism


Evans, Ernest, World Affairs


   Goodness, armed with
   Power, is corrupted;
   And pure love without
   Power is destroyed.

  Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy

In January 1919, the newly established Weimar Republic was faced with a terrible crisis. Specifically, the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party, the Spartacists (who were in the process of becoming the German Communist Party), had staged an insurrection in Berlin with the intent of taking total political power along the lines of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The president of Weimar, Frederich Ebert, asked his minister of defense, Gustave Noske, to take charge of putting down the uprising. Noske replied, "I don't mind. Someone must play the bloodhound. I will not shirk the responsibility." (1) Noske left Berlin, rallied loyal troops, and returned to crush the Spartacists.

Gustav Noske's response to Ebert's request dramatically illustrates a key aspect of any democratic government's struggle against violent revolutionaries intent on the government's destruction: Fighting violent extremists is a most unpleasant and painful experience for democratic governments for the simple reason that such extremists use "the best side" of democratic societies, namely their political freedoms and spirit of tolerance, as weapons to destroy them. Yet democratic governments must do their best to "square the circle" of simultaneously protecting their citizens from violence and protecting the rights of these citizens, because a failure to respond to revolutionary violence would result in "pure love without power" being destroyed.

This dilemma of "squaring the circle" has confronted the United States since the terrible events of September 11, 2001. The United States is faced with radical groups that regard it as "the Great Satan" to be destroyed, and there is no alternative for the United States but to start fighting back the way the heroic passengers and crew did on Flight 93 on September 11. The war on terrorism promises to be a prolonged and costly struggle, so as it undertakes this war that was thrust on it, the United States would do well to study the hard-learned lessons of other democratic nations that have fought terrorist organizations. In this article, I will examine the experiences of the following democratic governments with terrorism:

1) Israel and the Palestinians, 1965-present.

2) Great Britain and the Provisional IRA, 1969-present.

3) Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers, 1983-present.

4) Venezuela and the Venezuelan Communist Party, 1958-63.

5) Peru and Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), 1980-present.

6) Uruguay and the Tupamaros, 1965-72.

In comparing the different national experiences with terrorism, there will be a focus on four issue areas: first, the maintenance of governmental legitimacy; second, the legal questions involved in fighting terrorism; third, the relationship between military and police forces; and fourth, issues of international cooperation.

With respect to the issue of legitimacy, democratic governments fighting terrorist organizations must be widely perceived as performing the proper and legitimate function of protecting their civilians from random acts of violence. The record of recent decades is emphatic on this point: Where a democratic government is perceived in this way by all major groups in the population, especially the "target audience" of the terrorist group, the terrorists are defeated by the government. In Japan, Germany, and Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, the governments maintained their legitimacy by refusing to respond to deliberately provocative acts of terrorism with brutal repressive measures. Similarly, in Venezuela in the period 1958-63, the government of Romulo Betancourt defused the charges of the Venezuelan Communist Party that it was a puppet of the United States and local wealthy elites by holding scheduled elections in December 1963 despite a Communist-initiated terrorist campaign.

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Goodness Armed with Power: Lessons from Other Democracies for the U.S. War on Terrorism
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