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With Terrorism, Not All Talk Is Negotiation



September 11th put terrorism in the frontal lobe of every American's consciousness. It indelibly printed it as a top issue and concern for our country, and redefined it as a threat to our society, right here in the US, rather than just as an affliction faced in other lands. The visceral repugnance of the September 11th horror led our country to an attitudinal shift toward vigilance and countless measures to combat it in the future.

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These results were inevitable and appropriate. However, declaring a "war against terrorism" is not enough. Although it was necessary as an immediate reaction to the crisis, received full bipartisan support, and led to a restructuring of Federal departments and priorities, that is not sufficient as a long-term solution. This is not to say that our protective measures and general vigilance are not essential. But the defeat of terrorism can only truly be achieved by a combination of strategies and tactics.

The Bush Administration characterized this "war" in terms of a dialectic: either you're with us or you're against us. While that may have sounded catchy in films such as "Ben Hur" and "Star Wars", the world is made up of real people, with real concerns and interests that are not always defined in such clear-cut terms. Simplification into a dialectic does not leave room for understanding of peoples, which is vital for grasping the real root of terrorism as well as its elimination.  Furthermore, regarding entire groups as terrorists, or placing the burden on them to show that they are not terrorists, can incline them in the direction toward which they are being characterized, and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Terrorism threatened the US long before September 11th. The precursor to terrorism, hatred, has existed even longer. The intelligence community has documented the presence of hatred against the US by isolated groups, and the laying of the foundation for terrorist actions, for many years. To suggest that we can combat terrorism simply by fighting the aggression of terrorists is a fallacy.  For real progress, we must address the underlying hatred.

Many theories have been espoused to explain the antipathy that some cultures, and subgroups within cultures, feel toward the US.

  • In some views, it is simply because the US is the world's greatest power, and is therefore viewed as a natural enemy.
  • In other views, it is because western culture has dominated other world cultures since World War II, and treats them with diffident arrogance, rather than understanding, inclusion, and partnership.
  • Other opinions suggest that the economic supremacy of the US and its allies has marginalized other countries, and has posed a barrier to entry for other cultures that wish to compete globally.  A subtext to this view is that US foreign and military policies are largely oriented toward securing access to oil reserves and exports, at the expense of principles such as self-determination and mutual respect. 
  • Still other opinions have voiced a sentiment of estrangement or disenfranchisement from the apparatus of world governance and influence, as embodied by the composition of the United Nations' Security Council's five permanent members (the US, Great Britain, France, China, and Russia).
  • Another view points to the physical presence of the US in other countries, both directly and via international organizations.
  • And still others suggest that it is rooted in a perception that the US does not listen to, nor embrace, people of the Islamic traditions as warmly as other religious groups, either within the US or globally.

Whether any of these explanations is the definitive cause of disaffection, or whether it is actually a combination of these and other perceptions, it is undeniable that there are sentiments that underlie the motivations of terrorists. To suggest that they are acting irrationally is to confuse rationality with the reprehensible and immoral actions that can result from the violent actions of some who ascribe to a belief system. Because of their beliefs, those who became terrorists apparently felt that the only way for them to level the playing field with the US was to declare war upon it. Not having access to the traditional governmental tools of war, either military or economic, at their disposal, they have opted for the tools of terrorism. In many regards, it is analogous to urban crime within the US itself, as those who have felt excluded from economic and educational opportunity often turn to crime and violence to get what they feel they deserve.

Ideas / Solutions

The Federal government must augment its efforts with an attitudinal shift. Interdiction does nothing to curtail or redirect the root causes of terrorism. As isolation fosters misimpressions, disaffection, and disdain, the antidote is inclusion, understanding, participation, and, ultimately, mutual respect. Certainly that does not mean that we are to extend these options toward Osama Bin Laden himself, or to any others who have already taken concrete hostile action against the US. Those who have taken such actions are doomed to bear the harsh consequences of their actions. But there are, by intelligence community estimates, countless thousands of others, in a multitude of countries, who are gravitating toward becoming terrorists. It is essential for the US to reach out to, and address the belief systems of, potential future terrorists, so that they can be converted from antagonists to commercial partners and valued cultural contributors.

Failure to defuse the underlying tensions will perpetuate the US's vulnerability to terrorists. As our homeland security officials often point out, to prevent terrorism, we have to be right 100% of the time, whereas for terrorists to strike, they need to succeed only once from time to time. We have simply too much precious, vital infrastructure that cannot be airtight from attack. The only way to truly prevent attack is to eliminate the motivation of terrorists to do so. They must be shown that the US cares about the prosperity, dignity, and lifestyles of all peoples, not just those who are most like us, or those who we consider to be our best friends.

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The new approach must begin with a process for dialogue. As obvious as this may seem, the attitude in recent years against negotiating with terrorists prevents that occurrence. The precept against negotiations certainly applies when, for example, terrorists holding a captive seek benefits in exchange for the person's release. There must be no negotiating to resolve any specific crisis. But that does not apply to establishing a forum for long-term discussions between cultures to identify the commonly held complaints and points of disaffection.

Mutual understanding must begin by convening a high-profile forum of thought leaders and representatives of the people, from the US and other western civilizations and economic powerhouses on the one hand, and from the countries and communities where terrorists are based on the other hand. As many terrorist organizations have a public relations liaison as well, the public representatives of those groups should also be invited to participate. As unpalatable as it may seem to include anyone who has a belief system that overlaps with that of groups such as Al Qaeda, as long as it is not one of their militaristic leaders, a demonstration that there is a desire to understand their underlying belief systems would be very impactful. Just as our government convened discussions with Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein in Ireland and Yasser Arafat of the PLO prior to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, we must do the same with the non-military leaders of these groups.

Discussion does not connote an embrace of any of their philosophies. The message that it would send to thousands of young people who have not yet committed to unmitigated aggression or violence, and to prospective members of terror groups would be that there is no reason to personally declare war. Given an alternative to outward hostilities, it can be expected that many would prefer a mutually beneficial peaceful coexistence.

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At the onset of this initiative, it could be anticipated that such a dialogue would reveal much about the perception of America and Americans, much of which would not be flattering.  Indeed, the US has had unclean hands in recent years -- from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and waterboarding --each of which illuminated the inconsistency between American values and the short-term practices of our government. But the willingness of the US to hear from leaders of other cultures and disaffected groups would count for a lot, especially in the eyes of those forming their views about the US.

The US would have the opportunity to propose avenues for cultural partnership and even economic joint ventures to benefit disadvantaged societies with the tools and infrastructure to join the world economic community. Surely there would be plenty of room for establishing controls so that the monies and technology provided would not be able to be used against the US in the future. Many of the solutions might mirror US domestic policies that are aimed toward assisting domestic underserved communities, such as through the Community Reinvestment Act, Enterprise Zones, the Conservation Corps, Americorps, and public works projects.  The effort could even be comprehensive enough to take on dimensions akin to a "Marshall Plan" for the affected areas, for example, for the benefit of the countries whose people are predominantly Islamic.

In 2006, the Iran Study Group took a bold stance in favor of initiating discussions through diplomatic channels with leaders of countries such as Iran and Syria. Their position is monumentally laudable for its recognition of the need to convert these countries from antagonists to potential partners in the world community. Through communication and crafting roadmaps for building positive relations, we have a unique opportunity to find common ground in some areas, while “agreeing to disagree” on other issues. But the process itself, as well as the identification of some common ground, will go far toward deflating tensions and proving that Americans care about the people of Iran and Syria, too. In contrast, a refusal to talk would further ostracize these countries, leading to the disastrous consequence of pushing them further toward positions and even actions which are outwardly hostile to the US and other members of the world community. One needs look only as far as Libya to see the benefits of working together toward shared objectives, recently turning an adversary into a partner.

There are few topics on which all partisan factions agree more than the need to end terrorism. Bipartisanship is regularly achieved on short-term measures such as funding for intelligence, inspection technologies, and pursuing the masterminds of terrorist crimes. But limiting our attention to these measures does little to prevent the recruitment of future generations of terrorists. Although the idea of meeting and exchanging views with those who have been known to oppose the US and work against us -- even while excluding combatants -- may not, on its face, be appealing, it is a vital step toward the long-term security that every American wants and needs.


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