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Simplify the terror war, amplify the terror
by Jon Tinker
Description: Schoolchildren slaughtered in Russia. More bus bombs in Israel. Nepali cooks and French journalists facing on-camera death in Iraq.
Date: 03 September 2004
Author: Jon Tinker, Executive Director - Panos Institute of Canada
Source: The Globe & Mail, A17
Schoolchildren slaughtered in Russia. More bus bombs in Israel. Nepali cooks and French journalists facing on-camera death in Iraq.

This past week, the terrorist threat has rarely seemed more global or more deadly. Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush say they are allies in the same "war on terror."

It is, of course, the role of political leaders to simplify challenging events, and to unite their peoples behind a coherent response. Just as 9/11 became the seminal event in U.S. politics, so, too, may Beslan Middle School No. 1 in North Ossetia come to dominate Russian perceptions.

So far, Canada has been largely free of such bloody acts. So we should not underestimate the fear, outrage and demand for retaliation that they trigger in others. But as images of terrified Russian toddlers join our indelible memories of 9/11, we may be allowing our revulsion to overcome good judgment.

That those who plan and perpetrate these murderous acts are increasingly claiming links with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups should not surprise us. Terrorists, after all, are in the business of creating terror. And a worldwide conspiracy is more frightening than an isolated act in the Caucasus.

In the public domain, we can reach no reliable conclusion on whether such networks truly exist, and to what extent one group has a directing role over another. But we are in a position to question how much utility the "war on terror" concept has outside the hothouse atmosphere of political conventions.

There is little agreement on just what constitutes a "terrorist" act. Consider an escalating spectrum of responses in a region occupied by what many of its inhabitants consider a "foreign" military force: It could be Iraq, Chechnya, the West Bank. Stones thrown at soldiers; land mines exploded under tanks; off-duty soldiers shot; civilians working for occupying forces killed; army camps outside occupied areas attacked; suicide bombs on trains or in schools in a remote city.

The occupying government will label all these acts "terrorism." Many would defend those at the top of the list as justified resistance to oppression; most (but not all) would regard actions near the end as egregious terrorism.

Some argue that "terrorism" is defined by the heinous nature of the act itself, irrespective of the political motive involved. But the Resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe used tactics against the Germans that the Nazis called terrorism, and that today would probably be deemed terrorism under the laws of most European countries. Every colonial power called national liberation movements "terrorists," and it was for actions that South Africa's apartheid regime called terrorism that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

The language and philosophy of the "war on terror" does not encourage us to make distinctions. Every form of political violence is called "terrorism"; every political movement with violent supporters is dubbed "terrorist."

One of the most worrying spinoffs of the "war on terror" mindset is its coupling of terrorism with Islam. While the 9/11 terrorists were routinely referred to by the media as Islamic extremists, those involved in Waco or Oklahoma City were rarely identified as Christian fundamentalists. Imprecise and inappropriate Western terminology about Islam and the Middle East is mirrored by some from that faith and region speaking of "crusaders," "the Great Satan" and jihad.

This war of words has a self-fulfilling component. It threatens the multicultural basis of societies such as Canada's, and risks bringing about a real and bloody clash of civilizations.

The "war on terror" is a mega-concept whose simplicity is starting to overwhelm its utility -- for terrorism is a many-faceted rather than a monolithic phenomenon, involving a multiplicity of causes, motivations, justifications, cultural and religious roots, tactics and targets.

Counterterrorism demands flexible, nuanced and often case-by-case responses. This is difficult when public debate is conducted in generalities.

Although the tactics of terrorism have changed, the phenomenon itself is not new. Guerrilla attacks, hostage-taking and assassination are as old as warfare itself. They were described in Sun Tsu's Art of War 2,400 years ago in China, in the histories of Herodotus in ancient Greece, and in Machiavelli's The Prince in Renaissance Italy.

Today, the danger is that any persons who share a political aspiration or sense of grievance with a terrorist may start to feel that they, too, are targeted by an all-encompassing "war on terror," and that legitimate channels of protest have been closed off.

The "war on terror" is a seductive phrase. It gives us the illusion of understanding many disparate and disturbing events. But it may inhibit us from devising effective defences and appropriate responses. And it may risk bringing to reality the very demon it has conjured up.

Jon Tinker is executive director of the Panos Institute of Canada, located at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. He is currently researching terrorism.
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