Why is it that we, along with a handful of liberal democratic nations around the world, ought to be particularly concerned with the threat of terrorism? Because of one simple but powerful axiom: Terrorism only works against non-terrorists. Governments like those in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Israel, Australia and a few others have self-imposed limits when combating terrorists, and refrain from responding to terrorism’s indiscriminate slaughter with equally indiscriminate repression. Such limits – legal restraints, judicial accountability, human rights concerns, above others – stay our hand even in the face of mortal enemies.
In fact, the disturbing conclusion is that repression and injustice have historically halted terror in its tracks. Consider the case of Israel, a country facing one of the most relentless terror campaigns in recent history. In an effort to repulse the intifada’s onslaught, Israel troops re-entered the West Bank in March 2002 implementing Operation Defensive Shield. For three weeks, Israel maintained authoritarian control. The result? There were exactly zero attacks. Another example is terrorism in Northern Ireland, which continued for decades partly because the British government refused to use excessive and unjust repression to suppress it.
Resilient and institutionalized democracies are capable of surviving a long-standing campaign of terror even if its fabric is threatened, like the European experience in the 1960s and 1970s. Less fortunate nations demonstrate the capacity of terrorism to destroy a democracy’s foundation. In response to the late 1960s terror attacks of the Tupamaros, a left-wing organization, the Uruguayan government approved a military campaign to root the group out, which ultimately led to the suspension of democratic governance and a state of martial rule from which it never recovered for more than a decade.
Alternatively, terrorism expert Paul Wilkinson points out that “there is not one case of terrorism removing an autocracy.” What could account for this? Authoritarian regimes, which by definition maintain their rule through force, fight terror with terror. By nature, their responses are usually so swift and brutal that they make the costs of engaging in terrorism prohibitive.
Consider the famous Syrian response to terrorism: In 1982, members of the Muslim Brotherhood murdered three Syrian Baath party officials. Syrian forces then entered the town of Hama, from which the perpetrators had originated and proceeded to bulldoze it, leaving in its wake an estimated 20,000 dead. Despite their profound grievances, the Kurds cannot employ terrorism against Iraq because an Iraqi response would be so devastating. This they discovered during a 1998 uprising that prompted Iraq’s infamous Anfal campaign, an “operation of biblical brutality” that involved the use of chemical weapons against entire villages with ultimately 200,000 dead. Simply put, if a government is willing to use inordinate and unconstrained force to combat terrorism, a terrorist campaign cannot proceed, let alone prove successful.
The key for democracies is devising a policy that strikes a balance between observance of its values, institutions, process and the rule of law while making strenuous efforts to counter terrorism. After all, a government’s legitimacy is based in large part on providing its citizens with protection. As we brace for a prolonged struggle, let out guiding principle be, “One democracy’s terrorist is another democracy’s terrorist,” for after all, it is democracies that are the vulnerable ones.
Joey Tartakovsky is a junior global studies and Slavic studies major and a Daily Nexus columnist.