Understanding terrorists

I see Lord Alderdice, the former Assembly Speaker Alliance leader and psychiatrist is turning over his familiar theme of the links between fundamentalism and terrorism in Trinity College today. As fas as I can see, opinion divides, not so much on the straight links but on how we look at it. Do we objectivise it as “terrorism,”as problems to solve ; or hold them, “terrorists,” morally responsible as people and treat them accordingly? viz, Alderdice:

“”Fundamentalism emerges in particular political contexts where there has been serious trauma and uncertainty which brings out fear and aggression,” says Lord Alderdice.

Until people in any conflict [have already] begun to turn away from violence as a means of solving their predicament, they are unlikely to be prepared to accept that the prize of peace is worth the price of peace,” he says.

Contrast this with the historian Michael Burleigh’s view in “Blood and Rage: a cultural history of terrorism”:

Independent review quotes
All terrorists are “morally insane”. From playboys to psychopaths, narcissists to n’er-do-wells, “the milieu of terrorists is invariably morally squalid, when it is not merely criminal.”

These different perspectives are not actually mutually contradictory but they tend to veer off in opposite directions, Alderdice the less judgemental negotiator and Burleigh the scourge of the liberal appeasers..

Burleigh defines terrorism as a tactic. It’s also a lifestyle choice which is neither glamorous nor admirable, as Burleigh sets out to show. Spanning the last 150 years, Burleigh examines ideologically-inspired movements (Nihilists, revolutionaries, Red Brigadists, the Baader-Meinhof gang) and nationalist/separatist activists: Fenians, ETA, FLN and OAS, the PLO and various Middle East factions, the ANC, Irish Republicans and Loyalists).

Then there are the empirical analyses which tend to shift the blame to “us” i.e. the West, like Prof Robert Pape’s analysis of the suicide terrorism, a different entity to our domestic sort.:

“The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any religion for that matter. In fact, the leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion (they have have committed 75 of the 188 incidents).”

Not long after 9/11, Michael Lind wrote a brilliant refutation of the “Clash of Civilisations” theory that abruptly replaced the immediate post-cold war “End of history”.

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“Liberal democracies may be able to resist Muslim terrorism, but the greatest long-running threat to secularism, democracy and science could come from within, from the emerging coalition of the religious right and the romantic left brought together by a loathing for open society that they share with each other-and with Osama bin Laden.”

This case was always overdrawn. But I suspect that the fear of a clash of civilisations will survive the decline of the neo cons and religious right.

Now Phillip Bobbit, ex- Presidential adviser sand modish analyst posits another position.

The attacks were the work of an ultra-modern movement — closer to Mastercard than the IRA in structure. The worst is not inevitable: but it is distinctly possible, In his latest work, Terror and Consent” Bobbitt’s central premise is that today’s Islamic terrorist network, is like a distorted mirror image of the post-Westphalian market-state: decentralized, privatized, outsourced and in some measure divorced from territorial sovereignty. The terrorists are at once parasitical on, and at the same time hostile toward, the globalized economy, the Internet and the technological revolution in military affairs. Just as the 14th-century plagues were unintended consequences of increased trade and urbanization, so terrorism is a negative externality of our borderless world”.

And so in this techy age, do we “understand” the forces that produce terrorism and come to terms with it – and them?

I go back to Alderdice:”Until people in any conflict [have already] begun to turn away from violence as a means of solving their predicament, they are unlikely to be prepared to accept that the prize of peace is worth the price of peace,”

No matter how long it takes?

Myself I go with Simon Jenkins whom I recently watched gently mocking the lugubrious Bobbitt:

“Bombs threaten life and property, as would more harmful devices not yet found in the possession of terrorists but that they might conceivably obtain. I am happy to have a proportion of my taxes devoted, as now, to preventing this. Such policing, not “war”, has been mostly successful without putting Britain on a war footing.

What I cannot do is join the pessimists in claiming that western civilisation is so enfeebled by immorality, as the Bishop of Rochester implied last week, as to be structurally vulnerable to bomb explosions, devoid as they are of any political programme or local support. Because a terrorist claims to attack western culture does not make the claim plausible.”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London