Terrorism has obsessed us for more than a decade. George W. Bush declared a “war” on it. His successor has tried to wean us off that concept, but it remains embedded in our psyche. We Americans are drawn to the broad all-inclusive brush, headlines rather than detail. Would that reality reflected such a simplistic view. It doesn’t. We humans, and what we do, are much more nuanced; our actions often inconsistent, even contradictory. Lumping disparate groups under a single umbrella — in this case terrorists — is misleading and, as such, can be costly. It leads to flawed policy and decision-making that may undermine us both at home and abroad.
A case in point is that even now many of our fellow citizens probably view Muslims as followers of a single — read that unchristian — ideology or religion. Looking at today’s raging conflict between Sunnis and Shiites especially in Iraq and Syria, it’s clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Not only are their takes on Islam different, at the extreme they can be mortal enemies. These are denominational sectarian conflicts over which of the two possesses the true faith. Who knew? Well obviously some people knew very well and all the others should have known. It happens that those who followed Osama bin Laden were Muslims who also committed a series of terrorist attacks. It is also true that Al Qaeda members represent an extreme of Islam, in this case Sunni Islam. Does it follow that all Muslims are terrorists or even that those who follow an extreme form of Islam — the ultra-orthodox — are terrorists? Of course not on both counts. The rulers of Saudi Arabia follow Wahabism, a very extreme form of Sunni Islam and they are not deemed to be terrorists.
Who is a terrorist? Someone who carries out acts calculated to terrify and thus intimidate is probably an adequate definition. And we tend to associate terrorist acts, the kind that have gotten so much of our attention, as ones of unbridled violence, often targeting the innocent. Whether or not the horrendous murder of three Israeli teens is an act of terrorism or criminality is yet to be determined, but the former would not be surprising. While painful, especially in light of such news, let’s ask the broader question to which we probably should be devoting much more time than we do, if at all. When do those who have engaged in terrorist acts — individuals or groups — become something else? When have they reached a state beyond terrorism?
Consider this. Menachem Begin, who served as Prime Minister of Israel and signed the breakthrough peace treaty with Egypt, started out as a terrorist. The forerunner of what ultimately became Bibi Netanyahu’s rightest and governing (in coalition) Likud Party was Begin’s terrorist organization. The widely labeled terrorist organization Sinn Fein is now a political party in Ireland. And how would you characterize the popes and Catholic Church that condoned and committed clear acts of terror during the Crusades as its minions marched across Europe and into the Middle East reaping death and havoc on the way?
The Crusades are an interesting and timely example. Sent out by religious leaders, their objective was to reclaim all of the lands through which they passed for Christianity. Their infidel enemies were Muslims and the caliphate under which they lived. Remember how George W. Bush was criticized for calling his “war on terrorism” a Crusade and thus raising the specter of a religious war? The Crusades of the middle and late medieval periods were religious conflicts. Each side claimed ownership of the truth and of course acting in God’s name. While the kind of brutality it has displayed may be different, Isis is bent on conquering lands to reestablish a Sunni caliphate in modern times. They seek a theocracy to replace infidel, often secular, governance. Were the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini who overthrew the shah to establish a theocracy in Iran terrorists? Again, Isis may be waging a ruthless fight, but others have done so as before them. As they capture territory and declare statehood, a caliphate theocracy, they promise to collect the garbage, provide social services and pay workers wages. That these will be funded by stolen, or confiscated if you take their view, money is not the issue. They are simply following the heretofore-successful model of Hezbollah and Hamas.
Now don’t get me wrong, I abhor theocracies and am wary of anyone — following any religion or ideology — that claims to possess the truth. If I encountered an Isis warrior on the street, he would likely not hesitate to take my life not because what I have done but for who I am. The real question, and a painfully controversial one to be sure, is not about brutality. That must be condemned and, yes, opposed by all of us. Rather it is whether anyone who seeks political change through the use of violence is a terrorist? Or to put it differently, at what point does a group that employed terrorist tactics to gain power become something else, albeit a something we don’t necessarily like? Admittedly, these radicals aren’t seeking change at the ballot box, but neither did the founders of our great democracy. They obviously didn’t employ terrorist tactics, but they felt forced to wage war against the ruling English for the right to self-rule. Yes, we can say that we heartily dislike Isis’ radical Islamist ideology, their medieval worldview and certainly their bloody tactics, but their stated goal is ultimately not relatively different than that of many past revolutions. Is it any less legitimate?
In a recent interview Charlie Rose asked Harvard Law professor and Barack Obama mentor Laurence Tribe what is the most important message he has left with his students. Perhaps, he replied, it is that “there are more sides to every issue. Things are not advanced by planting your feet in the sand and sticking to a position.” The bottom line: “put yourself in someone else’s mind.” His words are directed at law students, future advocates, but we would do well to take his advice to heart — exactly the opposite of what seems to be afoot these days. As I’ve written before, planting our feet in the sand has become endemic in today’s politics and culture. It all too often pervades our approach to the wider world as well. We see everything in terms of good guys and bad guys, black and white. Once we’ve branded (often opportunistically) a country or group as one or the other, the characterization sticks.
We do so inconsistently and this can make for very strange bedfellows. We stamp ultra-orthodox and bad on those with whom we are in conflict; in the current environment we seem to mindlessly brand them all as terrorists. Isis falls in this camp but so does the Taliban, as if they were cut of identical cloth. Conversely the equally religiously extreme Saudi monarchy (ask their women) is labeled good and legitimate. We considered Mubarak a staunch ally even though he was a cruel dictator masquerading in a custom made Savile Row suit and we stay mostly silent when General Sisi takes power in a coup and condemns an untold number of opponents to death in mock courts. The definition of our interests is, to be charitable, as flexible as Jell-O and at times totally inconsistent.
I said earlier that we tend to brand others good or bad and that the characterization sticks. Let’s amend that. It sticks until it doesn’t. Think Germany. Whatever all of the now labeled terrorist groups have done in the last decades, it pales in comparison to what evil was wrought by the National Socialists, with the support of their German citizenry. Hitler was elected Chancellor. The Nazis slaughtered millions, among them members of my extended family. They claimed to be the Master Race and they invaded other lands not only to extend their territory but also to spread their sick truth. Fast forward, and not that far, Germany is a BFOA and we of them. The monster is the partner (even when we eavesdrop on Andrea Merkel’s phone conversations). The point is that we are very capable of reassessing and, as Professor Tribe admonishes his students, not “planting our feet in the sand”.
In my view, religious absolutism, the domain of the ultra-orthodox whether Muslim, Christian or Jew, is poisonous. It may not always express itself in violence, but holding the view that our way is the only legitimate way the potential for bad outcomes always exists. The ultra orthodox Jewish settlers on the West Bank who believe firmly that all of the Holy Land is theirs by divine right could easily be moved to violence, even terrorism, if they saw their way of life really threatened. A still complaint Israeli government keeps the lid on by avoiding the obviouis, but what happens when it finally (and inevitably if it wants to survive) accepts and implements a two-state solution is anyone’s guess. History doesn’t make me optimistic in that regard.
We may not agree with them, we may not like them and we certainly can’t condone their acts of terror. But we should try to put ourselves in their minds; we should contextualize their situation. For one, what moves those we label terrorists with our broad brush are not always the same. Isis claims to want a restoration of a caliphate, but they never have governed. We may see the Taliban as enemies because they hosted bin Laden, but they did rule Afghanistan for a time, albeit in a theocratic manner. We too are committed to our way and continually claim that we would make what President Kennedy called “any sacrifice” to protect it. We pride ourselves on being an open society and in secular governance, even though not always perfectly.
Those we call terrorists, often but not always accurately, engage heinous acts, but let’s not assume they do so without their own dreams and also frustrations. We may think their ways are misguided and unforgivable, but we would do well to think of what’s going on in their heads. It’s convenient to brand them all terrorists, but that broad brush inhibits us from moving beyond today and from differentiating between one branded terrorist from another, not to mention from adversaries who may simply be waging war. We’ve painted a forest and have lost sight of the trees, existing and potential. At some point that must end, we must get beyond terrorism.