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Understanding Terror


The 9/11 attacks on America and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ prosecuted by President George W. Bush have brought the debate on terrorism into sharp focus. Hardly any country today can claim to be immune from the threat of terrorism or the impact of the US offensive worldwide. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and increasingly Pakistan, it means war. India, ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia and US allies in the Gulf have become frontline states in the war against terrorism. Beyond the conflict zone, its manifestations can be seen in security operations. These include surveillance, kidnappings and detentions instigated by America and its allies, as well as immigration restrictions and checks on money transactions unprecedented in scale since the end of the Cold War.

 

When changes of such magnitude take place in the name of ‘war on terror’, it is natural to ask what constitutes terror and how is it caused? Yet the reluctance to confront these questions is far greater today than at any time in the last half century. ‘Terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ have become widely used terms of abuse throughout the world by democratic and totalitarian regimes alike. Academics and human rights activists can be denied visas to enter the United State. The political opposition in Zimbabwe and Buddhist monks protesting against Chinese rule, even the Dalai Lama, are accused of engaging in terrorist activities.

 

There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism. The term is used so widely and for such a sweeping range of activities today that anybody faces the risk of terrorism-related accusations. The absurdity of this approach has been demonstrated most recently by the British government’s decision to use its counter-terrorism laws to seize the UK-based assets of Icelandic companies following the collapse of an Icelandic bank, caught in the worldwide financial turmoil. The ‘terrorist’ label is used primarily for non-state groups. States, with few exceptions, can employ extreme repressive measures without being called terrorist. The idea of citizens taking up arms against a repressive regime has been buried in history. It has been quite a turn around since the 1970s and 1980s.

 

But there is a way to understand the phenomenon of terrorism objectively, casting aside the subjectivity that clouds the debate today. It is to examine terrorism through the microscope of ‘culture of violence’. Conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine serve as reference points to study terrorism by this method. 

 

Culture, as defined by E. B. Taylor, is ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and many other capabilities and habits acquired by … [members] of society’. Culture is the way of life which people follow in society without consciously thinking about how it came into being. It incorporates the impact of events, cultivated behavior, experience accumulated over time and social learning and is transmitted from generation to generation over years, decades, even centuries.

 

The fundamental building block of a culture is trait. Traits assume many forms such as tools, houses and lifestyle. Culture represents patterns of behavior – family relationships, attitudes and acts towards neighbors and people from distant places. The way government encourages citizens to conform, or imposes sanctions on them, indicates a certain culture. It is a collective mentality involving shared ways of seeing, understanding and experiencing the world. It distinguishes the members of one group from another.

 

How does a culture of violence take root and how does it grow? The process can be seen in four, sometimes overlapping, phases, starting with internal conflict. In Afghanistan, it began with the fall of the monarchy in 1973 and conflict between rival forces in the country. Iraq had been a tightly controlled dictatorship under Saddam Hussain. Its history under Ba’athist rule, which ended with Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, shows conflict within the ruling party and between the regime and opposition groups. The modern conflict in Palestine goes back to just after the Second World War and the creation of Israel. It, too, can be described as an internal conflict, between Jews and Palestinians, who have competing claims to the same land. But it would be wrong to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict solely as an internal matter today. It is central to the wider Middle East crisis, in which external powers are involved, and oil is key.   

 

The second phase in the growth of a violent culture is associated with the involvement of outside players that fuels the internal conflict. The conditions which led to Afghanistan falling under Communist domination in the 1970s and the war since then have much to do with the actions of the ex-Soviet Union, America and regional powers such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and, to a lesser extent, China and India. After the failed attempt to annex Kuwait in the early 1990s, the Iraqi regime was seriously weakened by the imposition of UN sanctions and no-fly zones by America, Britain and, for a period, France, excluding Iraqi aircraft from flying over large parts of northern and southern Iraq. Following the 2003 US-led invasion and the dismantling of the Ba’athist regime, many state and non-state players moved into Iraq, starting a vicious cycle of violence along with internal forces which had been unleashed.

 

The third phase in the growth of a culture of violence involves disintegration of the state structure, as the case of Iraq illustrates. The disintegration of the Afghan state in the 1980s and 1990s was a slow process. Once the institutions had collapsed, the Taleban were left as the only agency with the coercive power necessary to enforce some kind of order. The system which the Taleban imposed was oppressive and isolationist. It turned Afghanistan into a sanctuary for groups like Al-Qaeda. 

 

The fourth stage is the creation of an environment in which the rise of extremism occurs. By this stage, the cycle of violence has matured. Violence has superseded the rule of law. Violent players and their victims have become used to coercion. Their thinking and behaviour are driven by the perceived justification for, or expectation of, the use of force to resolve matters. In short, a condition has been reached in which violence permeates all levels of society and becomes part of human thinking, behavior and way of life. The reign of terror has arrived and becomes a phenomenon that does not know borders.

 

How can it be prevented? There are remedies implied in the discussion above.  

 

 

 

Deepak Tripathi, former BBC correspondent and editor, is a researcher and an author. He is the author of a study of the Afghan conflict during the Cold War and its consequences. Its findings were published in March 2008 in a short monograph, Dialectics of the Afghanistan Conflict: How the country became a terrorist haven (Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi). His book is to be published later. 

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