ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Almost every expert on terrorism that I have ever met believes that the Bush administration’s terminology, “war on terrorism” or the “global war on terror,” was a mistake. Louise Richardson, late of Harvard and now principal of St. Andrews University, put it well when she wrote: “We cannot defeat terrorism by smashing every terrorist movement. And efforts to do so will only generate more terrorists, as has happened repeatedly in the past. We should never have declared a global war on terrorism, knowing that such a war can never be won.”
Or as Gen. David Petraeus has said, we cannot kill our way out of the problems of insurgency and civil strife.
The problem with declaring a war on terrorism is that terrorism is a tactic, and terror an emotion. They cannot be defeated. They can be overcome. They can be ameliorated, contained, but never defeated. To declare war on them is setting a goal that can never be realized, and is therefore self-defeating.
The call to war implies that force is the only tool that can be used. Combating Islamic terrorist groups may require force from time to time, but, far more will depend on good police work and luck. “Our objective should not be the unattainable goal of obliterating terrorism,” Richardson writes, “rather we should pursue the more modest and attainable goal of containing terrorist recruitment and constraining resort to the tactic of terrorism.”
Traveling around Europe these days one finds that our allies have become more and more disenchanted with “war on terror.” British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, wrote an article in The Guardian last month that sounded like a personal plea to President Barack Obama. He admitted that the term “had some merit: it captured the gravity of the threats, the need for solidarity, and the need to respond urgently, where necessary, with force."
“But ultimately," the foreign minister wrote, "the notion is misleading and mistaken.”
He continued: “We should respond to terrorism by championing the rule of law, not subordinating it, for it is the cornerstone of the democratic society. We must uphold our commitments to human rights and civil liberties at home and abroad. That is surely the lesson of Guantanamo."
And: “Terrorists succeed when they render countries fearful and vindictive; when they sow division and animosity; when they force countries to respond with violence and repression. The best response is to refuse to be cowed.”
As Richardson has pointed out, declaring war on a terrorist organization is to give it too much glory and prestige, which is what it seeks.
In France, a senior official involved in anti-terrorism told me that wherever possible, it is better to avoid exceptional laws for the investigations and the trial of terrorist cases. “Even if a strict common law application isn’t adapted for terrorist affairs, French law provides rules that are essentially the same as those used for organized crime.”
Better to treat terrorist organizations as you would criminal conspiracies than to elevate them to the status of war combatants. Giving terrorists such lofty prestige is to give them an invaluable recruiting tool. “Terrorists like to be considered soldiers at war both because of the legitimacy they believe it brings their cause and for the status they believe it confers on them,” according to Richardson.
Another goal that terrorists seek is to provoke an over-reaction, and the mother of all over- reactions has to have been the invasion of Iraq — a country that had nothing whatsoever to do with Sept. 11 attacks.
Declaring war on terror may have reflected the seriousness of the Sept. 11 attacks, and of course a war puts much more power into the hands of the executive branch, the overarching goal of Vice President Dick Cheney. But in the end it was counter productive.
“We will never be able to prevent every attack,” says Richardson, “but we can control our reactions to those attacks. If we keep terrorist attacks in perspective and recognize that the strongest weapons in our arsenal against terrorism are precisely the hallmarks of democracy that we value, then we can indeed contain the terrorist threat.”
As a terrorism expert, Louise Richardson is right at home here, the site of Scotland’s oldest university, which includes among its faculties the world-famous Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
I asked Richardson if there was anything she would want to add now to her well-regarded 2006 book, “What Terrorists Want.” She said that what the West needed was a “counter narrative," and that when it came to getting the message out the extremists had us “beaten hands down.”
She said that it was well and good, after Sept. 11, 2001, to praise the heroic firemen and police of New York City. But if only there had been a powerful film about the Muslims who had lost their lives in the twin towers — the personal stories of Muslims who had come to America full of hope, and found it a good place to be — only to be murdered by Al Qaeda fanatics.
She said that America had a “great story to tell,” but wasn’t effectively telling it.
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