We have no rights!
We have no future!
No reasons why...
just born to die!
--Leftover Crack Born to Die
Terrorism is not, and has never been, a political ideal. It is merely a tool, a stick that individuals, groups, and even states pick up in order to whack another group of people into submission.
This puts a cynical edge on the Bush Administration's War on Terror. It is as though the Administration is fighting a War on Nuclear Weapons -- a commendable goal, but one that rings a little hollow because we're not fighting the sticks that hit us, we're fighting the people that wield them. Occasionally, we make distinctions about who should be allowed to wield the stick (Who is a freedom fighter? Who is a terrorist?). Other times, we've used the same stick ourselves.
Gwynne Dyer has an interesting article (slightly out of date, but not by much) equating state terror with individual terror. I'll leave Gwyn to sort this out while I tackle a more pragmatic issue: Pragmatically speaking, nations can wage wars against state terrorists and group terrorists, and they can win. However, when a group of loosely connected individuals decide to make trouble for the State, the State often finds it difficult to deal with them.
In its first new articles when it came back after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Onion made the best point on the folly of trying to end individual terrorism using only big sticks. The headline blared "United States Asks Osama Bin Laden to Form Nation It Can Attack". As we gear up to invade Iraq, and as we face up against the belligerence of North Korea, we can assume that we will succeed militarily here. We might even be proud of what we can accomplish. However, the mastermind of the act that killed more American citizens than Saddam could ever have dreamt of is still at large. Al Queda continues to take lives in Kuwait, Indonesia and the Phillippines. And other terrorists continue to operate on other fronts. Isreal, despite responding with crushing force, levelling families as well as houses in Palestine, has not been able to improve is security one jot.
When terrorism gets down to the individual level, it approaches a frightening maxim: a single madman with no regard to his own life can do considerable damage, and not be stopped until it's too late. Our methods of fighting terrorism relies on our enemies having conspiracies that we can unravel and infrastructure that we can destroy. A terrorist with some sticks of dynamite and a willingness to die is going to take a lot of people with him. Palestinians who are willing to blow up their own bodies to kill Isrealis are unlikely to be deterred by the threat of Isreali tanks coming in and demolishing their homes and the homes of their families.
The only way to kill the low-infrastructure terrorist organizations is to eliminate their support before it even appears. And the only way to do that is to avoid the situation where potential supporters of terrorists feel they have nothing to lose in their actions.
Trying to end terrorism without first ending poverty is like trying to dig a hole in the surface of the ocean. As long as a wide gap between the affluent and the impoverished exist, with no obvious means to cross it, you will grow potential recruits for terrorist masterminds. If the life that we offer people is so void of hope, then we have little to deter those people when some evil individual twists their minds into sacrificing their bodies to take as many people as they can with them. If our only response to the threat of terrorism is destruction, then we're not going to win. Indeed, if we respond only with fear and suspicion, with bombs and the suspension of civil liberties, we end up doing the terrorists' work for them, making our own lives intolerable before they even fire a shot.
If this sounds similar to certain explanations for the existence of crime, it should. Terrorists are little more than criminals with political aspirations. There is no accident why societies with a wide gap between rich and poor are not only targets for terrorism, but they can be more prone to crime. Otto Von Bismark noted, when he instituted state welfare to forestall revolutionaries, that (paraphrased) "those with an interest in the successful outcome of a state are less likely to rise up in revolt against it."
But wait a minute, you say: most of the September 11th terrorists were not poor, they were middle class. They were educated. Doesn't that disprove your link between poverty, crime, revolution and terror? To this I say that this point ignores the fact that Saudi Arabia's economy is faltering, and it is controlled by a ruling class which are circling their wagons and consolidating their wealth. More importantly, Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. So, even though these "middle-class" terrorists may not be poor, in their eyes they have lost control over their future. And, the United States, for better or worse, is propping up this undemocratic country. Thus we are a target, along with the Saud regime.
This frustration, this sense that they have no future, is one explanation as to why normal people are corrupted into terrorists. The punk gangs of England were not all poor either, and back in the eighties we were shocked to see that most of our youth criminals belonged to affluent suburban families. It's not about poverty, per se -- its about the sense an individual has of his or her ability to advance in society.
We all want a better future for ourselves, and most people reading this blog know that they can get it through hard work and discipline. Even most of those who have a pessimistic view of the future are going to make it anyway. I'm not laying down a direct correlation between poverty, the ability to advance and crime/terrorism -- I'm only saying that if we create a society where a large underclass is allowed to believe that they are going to be stuck where they are for the rest of their life, we create a fertile ground for crime and terrorism.
Once terrorists pick up their weapons, our own big sticks can prove ineffective in deterring them. We can't make terrorists go away, but we can prevent a number of them from ever showing up. To do that, we must consider our civilization, for that is the ground where terrorists find seed and grow. Only when we make our soil infertile to despair will we achieve real security.
Update - Sept 23, 2003: Soon after I posted this article, the Hamilton Spectator dropped its online archive and became a subscriber-only service. It became very hard to find links to any of Gwynne Dyer's articles... until now. His website is currently under development, although it may still be full of broken links. Note, if you click on a 2003 article and you come up with a File Not Found error, simply type in "_2003" after "/articles" and you will get what you're looking for.