Wednesday, December 20, 2006

General Themes of Terrorism

(Eventually I'll provide links between the posts, but since it's not hard to find the previous one, I'm just going to be lazy now.)

The perception of terrorism among the general public is not very well developed. When asked what terrorism is, most people would respond with something like: “violence targeted at civilians." While it is true that a terrorist might target a bomb at a civilian group, one must realize that this is not the essence of terrorist tactics. Also, one should consider if it is possible for a civilian group to be targeted where terrorism is clearly not involved. For example, should the mafia be considered a network of terrorists? Generally, mafia-like organizations or gangs are described as “organized-crime,” which is a phenomenon distinct from terrorism. The difference is that the mafia lacks a political motive. Its violent acts are intended to coerce, but not for a political cause. The mafia may attempt to influence politicians, but only in an attempt to gain more power to support greed. The end goal of organized crime is not a new system of government, or the independence of a region from an existing government (which would both be examples of a political motivation). These things might happen (for example, the police might refuse to enter a certain area of the city, thus giving up the oportunity for the government to control those areas, but the goal of the mobsters is to get more money. A mobster might blow up a rival’s cafe, but this would not be terrorism because of the lack of a political motive.
The common perception of terrorism (violence against civilians), while probably not completely described in the words above, does include an important characteristic of terrorism. The tactics of terrorism are violent tactics. This is one of the most common elements in all the existing definitions of terrorism. However, some definitions disagree about the extent to which violence is necessary. Is the threat of violence sufficient to be called an act of terrorism? The answer to this question lies in another common element of definitions of terrorism, namely, the intent of the violent acts.
For something to be considered terrorism it needs to have a political motive. Groups that act as gangs rarely have a larger objective, so they cannot be considered terrorists. For something to be terrorism, it needs to be intended to create fear, which the terrorists think will allow them to more easily achieve their objective. Perhaps the most basic definition of terrorism would be that it is “violent propaganda,” because the violence is not the goal, it is the tool used to draw attention to a larger cause. Terrorists attempt to draw attention to themselves by killing others, or threatening to kill others. The media coverage helps the terrorist group spread its message, and the coverage also helps to encourage fear among the target population. This fear is the other goal (besides spreading their message) of terrorists. They want to cause the target population to fear, and thus be intimidated into giving the terrorist group what it wants. Usually, the fear felt by the target population is unfounded. For example, on 9/11, there were four hijacked planes, out of thousands of planes that would have flown that day. The actual chance of being aboard a hijacked plane is slight, as is the chance of being killed by any terrorist act on a given day. Far more violent acts caused by criminals without a larger cause each day, than are caused by terrorists, but a terrorist group tries to convince people to fear it more than they fear ordinary criminals. That fact is what causes terrorists to choose the specific tactics they use.
It is important for the public to have a better understanding of what the tactic of terrorism entails, and what is not terrorism. The reason for this is that spreading more information about the way terrorist groups operate and what are the goals of the use of terrorism is a way to combat the effectiveness of terrorism. The goal of terrorism is to spread fear, and is used by people who have limited options and strength relative to their opponents. Sometimes, the goal of a specific act of terrorism is to make the targets overreact and make it easier for the terrorist group to recruit people to their view. If the public knows what is and what is not terrorism, it will be better able to resist the evolution of society into a totalitarian state in reaction to a terrorist campaign. It will also be able to realize that terrorism is essentially a publicity stunt, and resist the effect of the media campaign put on by the terrorist group and its associates.
As Fallows said, the biggest danger posed by terrorism is what we do in reaction to the campaign, not the destruction of the campaign itself. That is why it is worrying to see that in Italy, a prosecutor said "The charge he is accused of is hijacking, and I'm working to see if we can qualify this as terrorism,"[1] This was in response to a man who hijacked a plane and forced it to land in Italy. At first glance, the charge of terrorism seems valid. However, looking at the details in the case, it can be seen that it was not. The man entered the cockpit of the plane while the door was left open. He lied about having an accomplice with a bomb on the plane, and he told the pilots to land in Italy. He also demanded a meeting with the pope. His goal was to get political asylum in Italy – arguably a political motive. His method was to threaten violence. However, he never had the intent to cause fear among a target audience. It is enough to arrest and jail him for the things he did do, rather than make up charges because they sound better, or will gather more support or a longer sentence. If the prosecutor feels that hijacking airplanes should carry a longer prison sentence than it does, he should lobby his government representative, not try his cases under false pretences. The erosion of civil liberties that this represents, this underlying tension of fear and willingness to submit to anything to be safe, will eventually cause more damage than the bombs of terrorists ever could. Correcting the public’s perception of terrorism will help keep this from happening.So, a basic, informed definition of terrorism could be: terrorism is an act of violence with a political cause, an act that is designed to promote fear. Is this sufficient? Is this all that is important about terrorism? In fact these are the most important characteristics of terrorism, but there is still disagreement, and a few other important points.
[1] (Giuseppe Giannuzzi, 10/05/2006, “Turkish hijacker may face terror charge” AP, accessed on 11/10/2006)

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