2001: Demystifying Terrorism

In October 2001, I wrote a piece for the Prospect [see “Excusing Terror”] in which I criticized “the politics of ideological apology” -- the excuses that some on the left were making for terrorism. No one was justifying terrorism, but we were often asked to “understand” it. I argued that terrorism as a political strategy had to be condemned and opposed without regard to the causes that the terrorists claimed to serve. In fact, terrorism served no decent cause.

Is anybody still excusing terrorism? The answer is yes: Secret sympathy, even fascination, with violence among men and women who think of themselves as “militants” is a disease, and recovery is slow. But the excuses are heard much more in Europe than in the United States. My sense is that the argument here has shifted. It is focused more on how to deal with the threat of terrorism, how to make people feel secure. Speaking more politically, it is focused on how to make people feel that the liberal left is interested in their security and capable of acting effectively. We won't win an election until we address this.

Some on the left today believe that the best way to do this is to minimize the threat. That threat has been pumped up, they say, by the Bush administration and the right-wing media chorus, so as to promote the Iraq War and defend the expansion of state power authorized by the PATRIOT Act. And this much is true: Politicians of the right know very well how to play on and exploit the fear of violent death at the hands of masked murderers. I suspect that some of the same people who once wanted to “understand” the terrorists now want to deny that they pose much of a threat -- which is not to understand them very well. The truth is that we have good reason to be afraid. So the problem is real: How do we convince Americans that terrorism can be defeated within the constraints of constitutional democracy, and that we (liberal-leftists) can do the job?

I am not going to recommend a political strategy; other people can do that better than I can. Intellectually, we need to demystify terrorism -- not to pretend that there is nothing to worry about but to explain exactly what worries us and why. Terrorists are not fanatically evil monsters who must be met with a crusading zeal and an all-out “war”; they are political criminals who should be opposed by careful, painstaking police work. And this has to be cooperative, multilateral police work, across many countries, with the kind of diplomacy that makes international cooperation possible and a degree of global financial regulation that our laissez-faire government has been loath to seek.

There is political work to be done, too, and sometimes, as in Afghanistan, military work. But real security depends on tracking down the terrorist cells, stopping the flow of money, and improving surveillance at critical sites. And the burden is on us -- nobody else -- to make the case that these things can be done effectively by liberals and leftists who will also, in contrast to today's Republicans, defend the civil liberties of American citizens.

Michael Walzer is a professor at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study's School of Social Science and co-editor of Dissent.

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