A special brand of large-scale, public violence

Over the last five or six decades or so, the international community has been reacting, with limited success, to a special brand of violent, large-scale, public attacks.

That special brand of violence is commonly referred to as terrorism. Terrorist attacks are planned and executed in such a way as to create a climate of deep fear. They are meant to demonstrate that members of the public anywhere are vulnerable to great physical dangers and that the security authorities cannot protect the public from these attacks.

Maximum psychological effect is derived from the glaring message conveyed. The public is forced to think that these dramatic displays of violence are unpredictable and uncontrollable because they are carried out by individuals and by groups who succeed in acting secretly within and across the borders of any country anywhere in the world.

There are at least four major elements that are not receiving adequate emphasis in the internationally coordinated campaigns that have been waged against terrorism. While violence in its several forms will always be a fact of life at the local, national and international levels, one of the primary responsibilities of organized society is to provide for the physical safety of its members.

The first of those four elements is the biggest challenge: addressing the long-term, root causes of this special brand of violence. We simply do not have the moral strength, the intellectual honesty and the political will to face up to the enormous and permanent investment of the political, socio-economic, financial and human resources that are required to address those root causes.

Terrorists become enraged by centuries of colonial occupation, exploitation and social dislocation, civil wars, genocide and the desperate mass migration of politically, culturally and economically displaced persons. They lose all sense of self-control when they conclude that others are incapable and unwilling to accept that poverty, inequality and social ills such as forced racism and marginalization are the direct consequences of those centuries’ old experiences.

They use the violent hopelessness of terrorism to advance their own political agenda: rebellion against the world’s indifference and insensitivity towards the suffering they continue to endure as a result of those root factors.

The second element that can greatly enhance the national and international campaign to more effectively control terrorism is the adoption of a balanced package of policies and policy structures. Balance requires that security policies and operations should not encroach excessively on such basic human rights as those that protect privacy, freedom of movement, freedom of association, due process and equitable treatment in the operations of the judicial system. Civilian and parliamentary oversight over all security-related agencies and operations is therefore a must.

This principle of the balanced approach does not only mean that governments are not supposed to over-react. It also means the international media, governments and all groups of concerned persons seeking to address the challenges posed by terrorism have a duty to give equitable attention and assistance to all victims, whether the attacks take place in Lebanon, Nigeria, France, Belgium, Russia, Pakistan or the U.S.

The third element that is woefully neglected in the international campaign against terrorism is also the most dangerous and most controversial requirement for lasting “success”: a permanent international agency within the UN system responsible for the management of international security.

The fourth major element of an international strategy to combat this special brand of violence is re-establishment and strengthening of the “development agenda” as the cornerstone of all aspects of international relations. An enhanced definition of the development agenda in the context of relations between countries and through international organizations serves to spell out in unambiguous terms what is to be the main objective of economic growth and technological progress: equitable enhancement of the lives of all segments of society and of all societies through sustainable and environmentally responsible management of the world’s resources.

Terrorism needs to be managed with an approach that is far more rational and balanced than the ones to which we have grown accustomed. We seem to have acquired the chronic habit of “treating” the surface causes and “attacking” the immediate threats of international violence over and over again, even though that remedy has not worked.