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Do students understand terrorism?

Isa Senkumba

Do students understand terrorism?

Most schools still have the debating tradition among the students.

The patron of the debating club or the club chairman usually comes up with a topic which is distributed among the students to do research and later present their arguments in a debate. The proposers wrestle with the opposers until an executive conclusion is done declaring the winning side (of course the one with more points). But do the students learn anything from the topics being debated? Recently a student asked me for information about terrorism since that was their next motion for debate.   This is what I shared with him.

Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, in furtherance of political or social objectives. But in the broadest sense terrorism can be thought of as the use or threatened use of force against civilians designed to bring about political or social change.  While we think of terrorism as being both a political and irrational act (especially suicide terrorism), terrorism can also be thought of as a rational act conducted specifically to cause fear, confusion or submission.

You are likely to find a thin line between terrorism and other acts of war.  This is the grand conundrum of defining terrorism; it is very difficult to separate it from acts of war, just or unjust. We all have heard the saying, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” And indeed, Osama bin Laden and his comrades were hailed as freedom fighters in the 1980s by the American government at a time when politicians like Dick Cheney considered Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

Further, the UN definition of terrorism states that “all war crimes will be considered acts of terrorism,” in which case every government in the world (especially the major military powers, Pakistan, Israel, the major Muslim states, most Latin American governments) has committed terrorism, though few have ever faced justice or even opprobrium for doing so.

Just like other modern challenges, terrorism has its roots back in historical times. The first recorded use of “terrorism” and “terrorist” was in 1795, relating to the Reign of Terror instituted by the French government. The use of “terrorist” to signify anti-government activities was recorded in 1866 referring to Ireland, and in 1883 referring to Russia.

Throughout history humans have terrorized their neighbors to generate fear and compel changes in behavior. At the dawn of China’s imperial age, T’ai Kung, the first Chinese general and progenitor of strategic thought, described the “spreading of civil offensives” to sow dissension, demoralize the populace and incapacitate the government.

Today terrorism must be viewed within the context of the modern nation-state. Indeed, it was the rise of a bureaucratic state, which could not be destroyed by the death of one leader that forced terrorists to widen their scope of targets in order to create a public atmosphere of anxiety and undermine confidence in government. This reality is at the heart of the ever more violent terrorism of the last 100 years, from anarchists’ assassinations to hijackings and suicide bombings.

It is also important to note that the free or capitalist world provides highly favorable conditions for terrorist recruitment and activity. Why? Because the number of frustrated is increasing along with their awareness of how good life is for the few and better off.

The irony is that terrorists conceal their faces behind religious masks. The theological roots of terrorism or war have been clear.  Religion has always been used to justify politics and warfare. Nonetheless, this has not stopped the terrorists, who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon from considering themselves to be good Muslims, nor the Jews who uproot Palestinian homes or Serbs who kill Muslims in Bosnia from considering themselves to be good Jews or Christians. Arguing with them about the true nature of their religion is a waste of time. They might indeed be good Christians, Muslims or Jews, but are in the end bad human beings.

The quest to end terrorism has always remained a nightmare. Before 9/11 U.S. approach to fighting terrorism had been a defensive approach, also called antiterrorism. This approach sought to protect against terrorism through increased security measures in airports and cooperation among intelligence services.  But after the 9/11 attacks the approach was changed to a more offensive approach called counter-terrorism. This focuses on the sources of violence, that is, the terrorists themselves and those who harbor them. A host of bills have also been proposed, including the “Combating Terrorism Act,” the “Anti-Terrorism Act” and the “Public Safety and Cyber Security Enhancement Act,” all of which civil libertarians argue go well beyond any necessary response to terrorism.

There are at least nine international multilateral terrorism conventions that the U.S. can use as the basis for a legal war against terrorism through international law, rather than unilateral war.

Among them is the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which has the moral and legal basis to enter this process, be it state of non-state actors who are ultimately accused of engaging in and/or supporting terrorism. This would clearly constrain the range and freedom of action of the U.S. government in prosecuting its war on terrorism, but that is precisely the point of the UN; to limit the use of violence by member nations to secure international peace and security.

 In the last analysis, breaking the cycle of terrorism, and the incredible violence that fuels it, requires a radical rethinking of a world system that forces half of its members to live in abject poverty and destroys over more of the earth that sustains it. Today we all stand under judgment: colonizer and colonized, exploiter and exploited. The only way US can stop terrorism from happening on their land again is by preventing it from going on anywhere else. Only then will the war on terrorism see victory.

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