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Terrorism cannot be defeated
by terrorism




September 26, 2001

LONDON - Menachem Begin, the rightist Israeli politician, wrote in his account of the Jewish Irgun movement, active in Palestine against the British colonial power during the 1930s and 1940s: "Our enemies called us terrorists. People who were neither friends nor enemies, like the correspondents of the New York Herald Tribune, also used this Latin name, either under the influence of British propaganda or out of habit. Our friends, like the Irishman O'Reilly, preferred, as he wrote in a letter to "get ahead of history" and called us by a simpler, though also Latin name: "patriots"."

Yesterday's terrorists can become today's freedom fighters - - and in the Israeli case- today's imperial oppressors. The very word fills us with dread yet it is replete with its own contradictions. The Russian czar killers were the first to bring the word into common political usage. But, ironically, although they claimed that political murder "shakes the whole system to its foundations", when they finally succeeded in killing Czar Alexander 11 in 1881 nothing happened. There was no revolution.

Carlos Marighella, a Brazilian revolutionary, killed in a police ambush in 1969, was one of the then new breed of hard above board urban guerrillas whose ideas have influenced groups as diverse as Germany's Baader Meinhof gang and Spain's ETA . In his "Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla", he spelt out uncompromisingly what his strategy was: "Terrorism is an arm the revolutionary can never relinquish. Bank assaults, ambushes, desertions, diverting of arms, the rescue of prisoners, executions, kidnappings, sabotage, terrorism and the war of nerves are all cases in point…. the government has no alternative but to intensify repression."

The aim, he said, is to escalate the situation so that "people refuse to collaborate with the authorities and the general sentiment is that the government is unjust". In short: make the beast reveal its true nature; demonstrate that when the chips are down the capitalist state depends for its continued existence upon the use of violence and its own terror. However, thirty years on, as we can see all over Latin America, with perhaps the one exception of Cuba, countless guerrilla/terrorist movements have brought precious little positive change out of the mayhem they sowed. Indeed, much of the guerrilla leadership if not wiped out gave themselves up either to the authorities or, by agreement, to the more conventional political road.

Terrorism is often a long way round for achieving objectives that could have been more effectively pursued by more conventional political methods. Yet the authorities make their own mistakes, as serious as those of the terrorist. They walk into the terrorists' trap of overreaction -- and, as they do, so unleash their own equal or worse terror -- as with the military regimes in Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, Chile and Nicaragua (and today in Colombia). They all became a hornets' nest of severe human rights abuses that have taken decades of hard work by the sane "middle" to put right.

Osama bin Laden is getting what he wants - - a U.S. overreaction. The bombing of the World Trade Centre is probably just his first taunt. Once, as is likely, American troops blast their way in to Afghanistan causing the destruction of innocent life in an already impoverished and broken-backed country with its half a million war orphans, he will unleash his next atrocity.

Already he sees the West is divided, many countries fearing what may well happen. At the same time, on America's right, the hard line Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon is bucking White House leadership and going after Israel's local terrorists with a totally unrestrained, undiplomatic, headfirst policy, more in the mode of a Pinochet or a Videla.

The Western alliance has now as many fault lines as the Rift Valley. And it is not difficult to foresee that down the road the alliance will split with America and Israel going their own way and the rest of Europe, Canada and Japan pulling back. (Britain will perhaps stay with America, at least until a massive terrorist atrocity on its soil will turn a large slice of British public opinion against Prime Minister Tony Blair).

America may well win through in the end, although the bin Laden network is of a different order than previous guerrilla movements. It is less centrally directed than of old and more of a modern day franchise operation, with every franchisee, from the Philippines to Paraguay, from Aden to Argentina, from Germany to the U.S., working at their own pace and in their own way but making use of a loose supply chain, (and even then supplies more of ideas than hardware).

Also what will winning through mean if, apart from the sheer destructiveness of battle, there is also the fall of the fragile regime in Saudi Arabia or militants overthrow the military regime in Pakistan, getting their hands on a nuclear arsenal?

What kind of compromises will be made along the way with the forces of darkness, as the U.S. did before, turning a blind eye to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program under Carter and Reagan in return for support against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in its support of bin Laden as an anti-Soviet guerrilla? Will new compromises be made that America will come to rue in ten or twenty years time?

We should have no time for the terrorist. But neither should we have time for the counter-policy of massive retaliation. A little cleverness at the least is called for. And better still some humility and far-sightedness. The dilemma we now face is not how best to kill the hater, but how best to kill the hatred.

I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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