We Need to Talk About Terrorism

If Islamic terrorism was a “hash tag” on twitter it would currently be trending worldwide, if the mainstream media is to be believed. Within the space of a week it seemed that terrorist groups appeared out of fresh air across Africa. The French surprised us with a military offensive in Mali, whilst a group high jacked an oil plant in Algeria, leading to the deaths of British citizens. Importantly al-Shabab continues to hold a strong position within Somalia, seemingly unopposed by the world’s powers and the civil wars in Sudan and the DR Congo continue to exhibit terrifying atrocities. It appears that Western governments only decide to act against these terrorist organisations once it is of benefit to them. It is a form of governance coated in Realist ideology and can arguably be the correct way to respond to dangers around the world. But we can still question whether it is morally right, and whether we should instead be taking on a more Cosmopolitan approach, and act as citizens of the world. In order to decide how we deal with the latest trend in terrorism, we must first ask; how we define terrorism? How we respond to terrorism? And whether it is in fact morally right to act only once it becomes of interest to our own safety?

Attempting to define terrorism is perhaps the hardest task of all. Simply stated, a terrorist act is one that creates terror among its intended victim. However, for every definition that is formed, there are groups that would be labelled as terrorists, but would not, by most, be described as such. The cliché of “one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter”, does resonate strongly through the argument. However a more pertinent issue is deciding what form of action is taken is relation to the definition. After the attacks on America on the 9th of September 2001, the Bush administration was quick to announce a War on Terror. This was not simply an example of the infamous “Bushism’s” but an incredibly clever ploy by the government to allow them to act within the realms of warfare. This enabled persons identified as terrorist’s to be labelled combatants, and as such treated differently to those which fall under a legal paradigm. War courts were now allowed instead of national courts of law, allowing “combatants” to be attained indefinitely as the conflict was still continuing. Setting up detention centres such as Guantanamo Bay was thus justified by the Bush administration under the laws of war. The legality of this detention has constantly been in question, and even more so whether it is morally justifiable.

So how do we combat terrorism? The approach taken over the last decade has been to seek out terrorist groups and stop them before they have committed the act. The Geneva Conventions state that when deciding to go to war a country must consider the Proportionality of any retaliation; you have to respond in proportion to the attack you suffered. The 9/11 attacks has led to the invasions of two Middle Eastern countries under the banner of the War on Terror, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, whilst capturing a small number of combatants in comparison. These combatants have been detained indefinitely, there has been supposed cases of rendition, and many have been released without charge. Moreover the destruction of infrastructure in these countries, compared to that suffered by the US, is clearly out of proportion. We have not even mentioned the use of drone attacks!

If the approach already taken has not worked, other approaches must surely begin to be considered? There are clear indicators that the steps already taken may have supressed more terrorist attacks, but they have also led many, to be more sympathetic towards the aims of terrorist groups, whilst militarising others to join their struggle. This clearly is not the way forward and the fact that the terror alert in Western countries is constantly high, illustrates that appeasement has not be reached, and whether appeasement will ever be reached. Whilst both sides continue to feel under attack, whether physically or metaphorically, the actions currently being taken will only put a plaster over the problem.

In a theoretical scenario, if terrorist acts stopped causing terror and invoking a desired response, they would become ineffectual. In practice this is very hard to carry out however the response of Norway to the Breivik shootings was perhaps an example we could adapt and follow. Additionally movements in the past have used peaceful protest to make themselves heard and caused change. On a grander scale could countries not try turning the other cheek, and attempt this alternative solution to violence towards them? What would the world be like today if the US had not responded militarily to 9/11? These questions are rhetorical because it could be the case that this alternative response would have led to the same attacks and the same destruction that we have witnessed over the past decade. It is easy with impartiality and hindsight to make these suggestions, but decisions made in the moment, and sometimes clouded by justified emotions, have led to the world we see before us.

This discussion has arisen by the recent news coverage of terrorist activity within Africa. The media has picked up the story as British military assistance was given to France in Mali whilst British citizens were involved in a hostage situation in Algeria. It is a fact of politics worldwide that governments will only take an active role in situations overseas, once it is in their interests to do so. This Realist approach is not necessarily the wrong one, but in the global village we now live in, and with the UN continuing to be an organisation of global stature, we could perhaps begin to see a more Cosmopolitan approach. This would involve states becoming involved in terrorist situations around the world for the interest of the global citizens instead of just their own. The world is moving towards a crossroads where we will decide whether the traditional ideals of state sovereignty will remain, or whether we will continue to move towards a United States of the World. With the threat to countries becoming ever increasingly “non state” the response to this may also have to change.

Terrorism has always been a threat to institutions of power and will continue to be so, for the foreseeable future. Like a chameleon it may change colours, but its core purpose will remain the same. The current approach to combat terrorist activity around the globe has had some success, but it also has a very ugly side, and should not continue in this vain. Alternatives are available, however they require a drastic shift in how world politics operates and any alternative is not guaranteed success. This is an issue that will not go away; we need to talk about terrorism.