Politically motivated violence which accepts no limits or constraints and makes no distinction between combatants and civilians is indefensible, both morally and tactically. Public horror and outrage at recent events in the Caucasus and again in Indonesia last Thursday are therefore reassuring expressions of humanity, though as in the past they may temporarily mask the true nature of what we are witnessing.
Terrorism is a method not a cause. Tempting as it might be to link Beslan, Jakarta, Iraq and New York City together as fronts in a ‘war against terror’, each one has a unique historical context which needs to be unpacked and examined.
Regardless of how incoherent the objectives of the perpetrators may be – from forming a caliphate in Southeast Asia, ending the occupation of Iraq to Chechen separatism and the downfall of Saudi royal family – it is a mistake to conflate these attacks into a centralised and co-ordinated struggle between fundamentalist Islam and the West.
Consequently, the Howard Government’s mantra that this a war against “our values” and an attack on “who we are, not what we have done” is dangerously misguided. It precludes an examination of individual causes and grievances, legitimate or otherwise, and prevents a clear understanding of why these attacks occur.
It also inhibits an effective counter-terrorism strategy. What can possibly be done about people with deviant values systems? The editor of The Australian suggests “controlled aggression,” though he doesn’t identify a target or explain how escalating the violence will enhance our security. And if we in the West haven’t “done anything” to incite the violence, how are these groups able to recruit an inexhaustible supply of foot soldiers willing to die for their various causes?
Portraying these events as a struggle between ‘liberal values and evil’ allows governments to plead a common cause as joint victims of international terrorism. This helps them escape responsibility and condemnation for their own state terrorism, which by any measure is a more serious contemporary problem than anything Al Qaeda or Jemmah Islamiah (JI) can pose.
Palestinian suicide bombers can be condemned without mentioning Israel’s brutal 37 year military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Moscow’s crimes in Chechnya, including the razing of Grozny, can be ignored. Jakarta’s murderous policies in Aceh and West Papua can be set aside. Uzbekistan and Algeria receive Western financial support for their human rights abuses against local insurgents, providing they cast their repression as anti-Islamist. Australia’s joint invasion and occupation of Iraq can be de-coupled from Thursday’s bombing because we were “already targets.”
Terrorism can work. It drove the French out of North Africa, it annihilated the Indonesian Communist Party and it destroyed the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua – to cite only a tiny sample. It is unwise to dismiss it as mindless, nihilistic or irrational. States know how effective it is, which is why so many of them employ it as a method against their political opponents.
Attempts will be made to construe efforts to understand the motivation of the terrorists as condoning their actions, but this is little more than intimidation from people who have no answers to complex and difficult problems. Revenge may temporarily satisfy our residual atavism but it will do little to prevent a recurrence of violence – in fact it is likely to exacerbate the problem. The strategy employed by Western governments since September 2001 to confront Islamist terror has hardly been a roaring success, despite boastful claims by incumbent leaders about their credentials on national security.
However distasteful it might be to inquire into the mindset of these people or contemplate dialogue with them, what is the alternative? If it is not possible to negotiate with the hardcore, it is vital to discourage the broader appeal of their respective causes. An approach which berates them for their deformed values or religious obscurantism is unlikely to succeed in thwarting recruitment to these nefarious groups.
Canberra faces a difficult set of challenges. It cannot protect its citizens overseas, especially in a country where vital intelligence on groups such as JI is either not being shared or doesn’t exist. If it is indeed responsible for the embassy bombing, the effectiveness of JI seems relatively undiminished despite the Bali prosecutions and Hambali’s arrest. If this wasn’t concern enough, in Indonesia both candidates for the forthcoming presidential election deny they have even have a local Islamist problem.
Governments which commit horrendous acts of violence to crush political dissent, destroy secessionist movements, overthrow unfriendly governments or occupy other people’s land should not be surprised when their methods are reciprocated by non-state actors. Tragically for their populations, it is usually the innocent, rather than their complicit governments, who suffer.