Friday, November 24, 2006

How Terrible Is It?

Max Rodenbeck's "How Terrible Is It?", from the Nov. 30, 2006, issue of the New York Review of Books, begins with the official documents called "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America" from September 2002 and March 2006. You can tell from the title of the article, of course, where MR is coming from! But my reason for citing it here is Rodenbeck's discussion of Louise Richardson's book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.

Richardson is "a Harvard professor who not only has been teaching about terrorism for a decade, but brings the experience of an Irish childhood, including youthful enthusiasm for the IRA, to understanding the phenomenon. As she explains, she had always thought it wise for academics to stay out of politics. The sheer boneheadedness of Washington's incumbents, who have ignored decades of accumulated wisdom on her subject, prompted her to write a belated primer."

Rodenbeck summarizes a dozen of Richardson's basic points as follows (his elaborations are longer than I have quoted here; I've just quoted the beginning of each point):

1. Terrorism is anything but new.

2. Terrorism is obviously a threat, and the deliberate killing of innocent civilians an outrage, but it is not a very big threat.

3. The danger from terrorist use of so-called weapons of mass destruction is not as large as scaremongers profess.

4. Many terrorists are not madmen. The choice to use terror can be quite rational and calculated.

5. Groups that commit terrorism, in many cases, believe they are acting defensively, using the most effective means at their disposal. Their justifications can be self-serving and morally repugnant, but are often carefully elaborated.

6. Suicide attacks can also represent a rational policy choice. They are cheap. They can be a means of access to difficult targets. They are effective in frightening people, and in advertising the seriousness and devotion of those who undertake them.

7. There is no special link between Islam and terrorism. Most major religions have produced some form of terrorism, and many terrorist groups have professed atheism. If there is a particular tenacity in Islamist forms of terrorism today, this is a product not of Islamic scripture but of the current historical circumstance that many Muslims live in places of intense political conflict.

8. Electoral democracy does not prevent terrorism, which has flourished in many democracies, typically being used by groups representing minorities who believe the logic of majority rule excludes them.

9. Democratic principles are no impediment to prosecuting terrorists. On the contrary they are, Richardson asserts, "among the strongest weapons in our arsenal."

10. Military action is sometimes necessary to combat terrorism, but it is often not the best way to do so.

11. Armies, in fact, often create more problems than they solve.

12. To address the issues terrorists say they are fighting for cannot automatically be dismissed as appeasement.

I highly recommend the whole article, and Rodenbeck highly recommends Richardson's whole book.

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