Understanding terrorism is often difficult for civilized people, but is necessary for an effective response. Acts of terrorism by organized groups are not merely acts of senseless barbarism. They may be barbaric, but they make sense in a vicious way: Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare.
Most acts of terrorism have political purpose. They are deliberate acts against governments by persons who are relatively powerless. The weak attack the more powerful with no expectation of winning a military struggle, but intending to inflict visible harm.
Terrorists know body counts make headlines, and they want as much media as possible. Usually they select civilian instead of military targets, because they know they cannot win a military confrontation: civilians are easier to kill in large numbers.
Military vessels, for example, can take a lot of damage without sinking. Office buildings make more attractive targets, because they lack armor and contain large numbers of defenseless people.
Case in point: Attacking the Pentagon was not an assault on a military base, but on an office building.
The immediate goal of terrorism is to undermine the legitimacy of a government by making a civilian population feel threatened, thus making it appear government cannot maintain order and safety.
The atrocities at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not serious attempts to overthrow the United States or destroy its society. They were attempts by terrorists to demonstrate their effectiveness by disrupting civil society in the most powerful country in the world.
These attacks were a political organizing tactic by persons seeking to attract more followers to their cause, not in the United States, but in the Middle East. In the eyes of potential followers, humbling the United States makes a terrorist leader appear effective and powerful, perhaps someone worth supporting.
If these atrocities were organized by Osama bin Laden, they were attempts to organize support to overthrow Middle Eastern countries friendly to the United States: Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Those are his real targets.
These atrocities were not acts of religion, because they were directed at acquiring political power, not worship or living a moral life. Downtrodden, disaffected people, who lack a sense of direction, have little hope, and a weak moral compass often turn to religion for guidance and solace. Some go beyond a healthy religious life to unhealthy dependence on persons willing to provide direction and support.
These gullible people sometimes join cults, and are easy prey for politicians disguised as religious leaders, who first cultivate and encourage their religious devotion, and later provide corrupt interpretations of religious doctrine that encourage antisocial behavior. Such leaders are willing to manipulate the religious devotions of others to persuade them to do terrible deeds. In Arabic they are called Munafiq, denoting those who proclaim to be Muslims but don’t partake in the true Islamic ways. This is perversion of religion for political purposes by leaders who seek power. Christianity is as susceptible to manipulation as Islam or Shintoism. We’ve seen it before.
As President Bush said, Islam is about peace, not war. Those who foment jihad make more of it than they should, while ignoring the totality of Muhammad’s teachings about a peaceful, moral life.
These attacks were not about being Arab. They could as easily have been Irish or American or German. We’ve seen them before.
The best antidote for terrorism is demonstrating the continued effectiveness of government. This requires three actions.
First, we must speedily rebuild and re-establish civil order and security. Second, the organizers and supporters of the atrocities must be hunted down, subjected to the rule of law, and deprived of their freedom. Third, there must be targeted, proportional retribution for any states and organizations that provided support or shelter for them.
If the choice is between taking them dead or alive, alive is better. Nothing demonstrates the effectiveness and legitimacy of government like the spectacle of a criminal trial.
By comparison, assassination of terrorists is a weak alternative. It suggests a government lacks confidence in its own law enforcement and courts. Assassination of terrorists demonstrates they have been successful in undermining the legitimacy of a government that no longer believes in itself. This would be a step backwards from what makes this country great.
Greatness, after all, should not be sacrificed in anger.
Editor’s note: The author is associate professor and chair of the Political Science Department, University of Southern Maine, and a consultant on international development projects in Indonesia funded by the U.S. State Department.