Even while the death toll is mounting and it is not yet clear how many people have lost their lives in the horrific September 11 terrorist acts, it is vital that we do not limit our discussion to the all-too-narrow view taken by many policy makers and military experts. Insurgent terrorism should not be tolerated and is never justified; the perpetrators should be caught and tried, and security precautions must be taken so that pernicious acts of this kind do not recur. However, these measures are reactive rather than proactive. In order to eradicate terrorism we need to begin confronting its causes and not merely its symptoms.
Policy makers tend to trace the causes of terrorism to extreme ideology, whose proponents put to use the three Ts: technology, transnationalism, and telecommunications. Technology refers to the availability of arms and related tools for carrying out terror; transnationalism involves the movement of peoples with relative ease across borders, so that terrorists can train in one state, perpetrate their deed in another, and move to a safe haven in a third; and telecommunications is thought to promote terrorism because it guarantees a wider audience, and helps make terrorism a kind of political theater, in which people feel weak and vulnerable.
While the examination of ideology or technological developments is important, it will not disclose terrorism’s root causes. Moreover, military operations, whatever they may be, will not able to strike a death blow to international terrorism, indicating that its high time that we probe the topic from a fresh standpoint. This entails asking new questions like how does the absence of certain rules and institutions in the international sphere help create conditions whereby groups and states with grievances resort to terrorist violence?
Questions like this do not intend in any way to condone terrorism, but rather to stimulate an investigation of how the development of global institutions such as the international criminal court or a mediation agency — which would hear and judge grievances — might help prevent terrorism by providing non-violent alternatives. Investigations like this are fundamental, and they might even lead to the establishment of such institutions.
Rethinking international terrorism along these lines helps counter the tendency to conceive terrorism as eliciting from an internal character or disposition which compels the actor toward violence. Paraphrasing the famous French philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, people are not born, but rather become terrorists. Accordingly, terrorism, and more importantly the grassroots support that it needs in order to thrive, should be considered as predominantly arising from social injustices accompanied by a lack of meaningful channels through which political groups or even states might have their grievances redressed. Such an outlook is essential to any effort which strives to curb and ultimately eliminate terrorism.
Neve Gordon’s essay “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” co-authored with George Lopez, recently appeared in the book Ethics and International Affairs (Rowman and Littlefield). He teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.