The attacks on New York and Washington a year ago were ghastly phenomena. They killed (most Westerners would argue) the innocent. They also killed by surprise. They killed, too, in large numbers. And they killed to extraordinarily symbolic effect. Of the two pri- mary targets, one"the Pentagon"was the official home of the most powerful and sophisticated military machine ever devised by humankind, and the other"the World Trade Center"manifested the capitalist enterprise not only of the United States, but of the entire OECD world. If the Great Republic presides over a hegemonic empire, this was a frontal assault on the two core components of its imperial being.
It was an unfamiliar experience, and stunningly exotic. Continental Americans had not been so directly attacked by forces emanating from an overseas politics since the War of 1812. That the explosive projectiles used against them should be contrived of their own civilian airliners com- pounded the horror, deepened the disbelief. Hasty conclu- sions were drawn. Things would never be the same. A new kind of vigilance was required, and a new kind of ”œwar” had to be fought. For the instrument of the enemy was ”œterror- ism,” and terrorism is ”œspecial.”
As understandable as this last conclusion may be, it warrants a closer look. Why do we think of terrorism as ”œspe- cial”? Why, indeed, do we think of it as ”œterrorism” at all? For the term itself is politically loaded. One observer’s ”œter- rorism” may be another’s legitimate act of resistance to oppression. Such arguments over terminology, the contrari- ous often assert, reflect nothing more than a difference of perspective"a difference very reminiscent of a similar phe- nomenon in the disarmament trade. As the old saw has it, whether you think a weapon is ”œdefensive” or ”œoffensive” depends on whether you’re standing behind the trigger or in front of it.
But there may be a difference. We think of terrorism as both ”œspecial” and objectively identifiable not just because our security personnel have trouble dealing with it, but also because it seems aberrational. In effect, we regard it as a pathology"a pathology that is particularly awful (a) because it’s violent, (b) because the violence is often (although not always) directed to the random slaughter of the innocent, and (c) because it sometimes (again, not always) requires for its successful execution the certain death of the terrorist"a characteristic that seems to connote the presence of an alarming dose of wantonly fanatical ”œirrationality.” And since it is ”œspecial” in these ways, the phenome- non appears also to require a special kind of expla- nation, and possibly a special kind of policy response.
From the political scientist’s point of view, on the other hand, terrorism is not a manifesta- tion of pathological behaviour at all. Quite the contrary. It is simply an instrument of politics, a technique for getting one’s way, a means of changing the prevailing pattern of who gets what, when and how.
Moreover, it is not in the least bit unusual in being violent. All sorts of instruments of politics involve death and destruction, and most political authorities are quite good at mounting ”œjust cause” reasons for their deployment.
Nor is terrorism unique in its targeting of the innocent. We could ask the ghost of Hermann Gà¶ring. Or the bombers of Dresden. Or the archi- tects of the cataclysms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or the inventors of the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Or any of a multi- tude of others, great and small.
Nor, finally, is it singular in demanding the death of its perpetrators. In this respect (although perhaps not in other respects), everyone compares it with the performance of kamikaze pilots in World War II. But it could be compared in modern times also with the behaviour of self-immolating Buddhist priests in Vietnam. It could even be com- pared with the extraordinary courage exhibited by many of those who have received, posthumously, the Victoria Cross (Canadians among them).
”œTerrorist” behaviour, in short, is not ”œpsy- chotic” behaviour, even if we were to find on close examination that some individual terrorists (like many of the clandestine members of the Communist Party in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s) give evidence of having social or psychological problems of one sort or another.
It may therefore be more instructive to think of terrorism as a political activity akin to guerril- la warfare"a phenomenon upon which there is a massive literature, much of it linked in the 20th century to the politics of decolonization, and informed by the writings and practices of Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara, General (Vo Nguyen) Giap and others of that ilk. Among other things, this has the advantage of reminding us that ter- rorism, like other forms of guerrilla warfare, is a very unpleasant activity, entailing enormous" and often the ultimate"sacrifice. As an instru- ment of politics, therefore, it is not the instrument of first choice but the instrument of last resort. It is used only where other instruments are unavailable, or, if available, are unequal to the political task"that is, in situations where the tac- tics of conventional politics are denied to the political actors involved, or have no prospect of being effective, and where the advantage in terms of the more conventional instruments of force (armies and police) is very clearly held by the other side.
Cognoscenti will regard these as common- place observations, but they help to open up the question of ”œroot causes” and thereby lead us directly to a consideration of the socio-cultural factor as a source of terrorist behaviour. This is because playing politics with the intensity of motivation that recourse to terrorism entails requires a deep attachment to a cause"a cause for which the terrorist is actually prepared to die, and to die, moreover, not by accident but wilful- ly, by his or her own hand.
Usually, attachment to the cause has to be shared (although perhaps not so intensely) by others as well, since such sharing of purposes is essential to the creation of a wider base of sup- port. Hence Mao Tse-tung’s famous dictum that guerrilla fighters have to be like ”œfish in the sea” "a view which has been echoed by almost all modern authorities on the subject, irrespective of which side of the battle they have been on.
In the 9/11 context, of course, the guerrillas, or the terrorists (like the corporate and other agents of the secular world of modern liberalism and Western capitalism that they appear to so profoundly hate), have gone ”œtransnational,” so that the areas in which they are operating are geographically distant from the sea that ulti- mately provides their sustenance. Their local tar- get communities don’t even know they’re there" until it’s too late. But that is simply a new wrin- kle on an ancient political phenomenon, a wrin- kle introduced (like so much else in the modern world) with the help of technology.
For the purpose of the present discussion, however, the focus needs to be on the ”œcause” itself, because this, presumably, is where the socio-cultural factor (like other potential candi- dates for ”œroot cause” status) comes into play. Culturally bound assumptions, after all, help human beings everywhere to define themselves, and what they want. They also help them to define their enemies, and what they think their enemies want. Above all, they help them to determine how much they care"how much they think the contested issues really matter.
The prevailing societal culture, along with the processes by which it is either spontaneously learned or systematically inculcated, helps, in short, to give definition to the politics. (It does this, incidentally, as much for the forces of the establishment"and in the present situation that means for us"as it does for the forces of those who see themselves as gravely dishonoured, or gravely dispossessed.)
But this analysis leads to a problem. Certainly it leads to a problem when we focus on terrorism as organized political behaviour, as opposed to concentrating on the motivations of particular individuals who may happen to engage in terrorist acts. Simply put, this is because the cultural variables"the cultural drivers"affect a much larger proportion of the population than the one we associate with the relatively small community of terrorists and their immediate sup- porters. That being so, it appears that other things have to be going on"that the cleavages of identity and culture have to be reinforced by cleavages of another kind"before the terrorist behaviour is triggered.
While the socio-cultural environment may be a permissive, or even facilitating, factor in the emergence of certain kinds of terrorist activity, therefore, it cannot be sufficient in itself as a cause of the behaviour (although conceivably it could be sufficient as a foundation upon which to build the indoctrination of individual terrorist ”œwarriors”). The cultural element, in other words, does not appear to have enough causal power to account for the phenomenon as a whole, even if it can account for why certain individuals are prepared to commit extraordinarily self-sacrificial political acts.
The problem of weighting the cultural factor relative to other variables is compounded by the fact that the leaders of any terrorist campaign are unlikely to be as simply motivated as those who follow them. Their political thinking is like- ly to be far more calculating, far more complex, and probably far more pragmatic and ”œinstru- mentalist” in orientation. For them, the cultural factor may be more pertinent as a vehicle for the mobilization and indoctrination of others than as a recipe from which they seek guidance for their own behaviour. On the other hand, it may well affect the ”œlens,” or the ”œintellectual prism,” through which they interpret the world around them"influencing, as it were, their ”œintelligence assessment.”
This relatively modest interpretation of the importance and role of the cultural variable as a stimulus for terrorist activity (relative to the role played by variables of other kinds) could easily be wrong-headed. Reaching conclusions on such issues is ultimately, after all, a matter of judg- ment. But whether the judgment offered here is wrong-headed or not, there can be no doubt that the weights we assign respectively to the various causal factors that may be driving the behaviour involved have profoundly significant implica- tions for our views of the appropriate policy response.
To illustrate this point, it may be useful to consider three commonly suggested propositions about what may have been going on in the minds of Osama bin Laden and his senior col- leagues over the past decade or so.
One account has it that he was profoundly offended"and ultimately radicalized"by the presence of the American military on the soil of Saudi Arabia.
Now, if that were truly the driver of al- Qaeda behaviour, the long-term solution might seem relatively simple"although certainly not strategically or politically ”œcost-free” from the Washington vantage point. On such an inter- pretation, to de-escalate the problem it is neces- sary only to remove the American armed forces contingent from Saudi Arabian territory (obvi- ously not the stratagem that the Americans have adopted thus far, and probably not one they are likely to pursue in the immediately foreseeable future).
A second account of the problem holds that the core source of the radicalism of the terrorists is the presence of Israel in a land that Palestinians and their supporters elsewhere in the Islamic world regard as properly Palestinian, and not Israeli.
Here again, the solution is technically straightforward, but from the political point of view it may be even more difficult to achieve. Israel has to give up some of its land (or the land it currently controls). On some accounts, it has to give up all of its land. The former might conceiv- ably happen in the context of a negotiated settle- ment. The latter won’t.
But a third account has it that the current round of terrorist radicalism has roots that are deeply imbedded in the Islamic culture, or at least in one or more versions of it. They are imbedded specifically in that part of the culture that leads to the perception that the ”œWest” rep- resents a way of living that is so fundamentally a violation of the will of God that it creates for true believers an obligation to try to bring it down.
This is not very difficult to understand. For a start, the West has insisted (after a centuries-long struggle in Europe) on separating Church from State, or the world of God from the world of Caesar. This, clearly, is a position that makes for a more civilized politics in largely secular societies, but it also has the effect of demoting the salience of ”œGod” to the conduct of an important and per- vasive part of our lives. The West has concluded, in effect, that our relations with our respective gods are private matters entirely, and that theological considerations have no place in the way we do our community politics"which is a quite extraordi- nary idea when one thinks of it from the vantage point of those of deeply committed faith.
Moreover, if one’s view of the will of God incorporates an attachment both to family and to what Westerners describe as ”œpuritan” values, the offensiveness of the West assumes truly monu- mental proportions. It requires only a moment’s reflection on how an evening of North American television would look to someone holding such beliefs to grasp the implication. The experience would seem like an odyssey in corruption and decadence"an almost unbroken display of vio- lence and greed, along with illicit (and alarming- ly public) sexual activity, an overwhelming fasci- nation with the pampering trivia of personal hygiene, a voyeuristic portrayal of the responses of the police to the degraded vulgarities of the gutter, and so on. What, after all, would John Milton have made of Jerry Springer? What must a committed Muslim make of him in our own time?
On this account of the problem, however, there is no policy ”œcure” at all"not, at least, a pol- icy cure short of the conversion of a dedicated and militant Islam to what we may have to acknowl- edge is a world-view akin to the libertarian.
This list of potential ”œroot causes” could eas- ily be expanded. Some would be inclined to argue that the disaffection of the terrorists is ultimately the product of economic deprivation, or perhaps more accurately, in the present context, of gross disparities in the distribution of wealth. Their leaders may be wealthy and be guided by other considerations"considerations typical of author- itarian elites everywhere, in every time"but their capacity to recruit their foot-soldiers is nurtured by the poverty of the many, and it would go away if the pertinent populations were appropriately enriched. Alternatively, it can be held that the true source of the alienation lies with political regimes that are transparently corrupt, oppressive and undemocratic, so that the solution must ultimately rest on the advance of democratiza- tion. It can also be suggested that the difficulty really lies with the structural integration of both these conditions"the underlying poverty and the disparities in the distribution of wealth being themselves the inevitable consequence of an oli- garchical politics.
Here, too, the implications of the argument" even if the analysis itself is well-founded"are such as to leave little hope of effective remedy in the short term, since the necessary reforms are unlikely to occur in the absence of invasive inter- ventions of the imperial sort"interventions that would be no more acceptable to the indigenous populations than they would be to the con- stituencies of the intervening powers.
In practice, these various interpretations (and others like them) of bin Laden’s behaviour, and perhaps even more of the behaviour of those who follow him, may all be right"in the sense that they are all ”œin the picture” and actually serve to reinforce one another. Israel, in such an account of the bin Laden view, is not just the stealer of Palestinian land; it is also the purveyor in the Middle East of Western corruption"a cor- ruption that among other things has turned the leadership of Saudi Arabia into a comprador elite, willing to lend part of its territory to the armed might of the United States in a way that helps the Saudi leadership to sustain its own position of political, economic and social privilege.
If there is any merit in this assessment of the ”œroot causes” analysis of the current terrorist problem, the practical implication from the Western point of view is both clear and depress- ing, since it effectively denies the viability of remedies based on root-cause engineering. Attempting, for example, to change the sub- stance of a given socio-political culture, much less the institutions and processes by which the socialization of the culture occurs, is not an easy or reliable undertaking. Certainly it is not a short- term undertaking. That being so, the security problem that terrorist ”œguerrilla warfare” repre- sents has to be regarded as just that"a security problem. The liberal world that Canadians and others in the West inhabit has enemies"and some of them are understandably determined. We can fiddle at the margins in attempting to dis- suade them of their views, and here and there we can even make policy changes in the hope that this will make us appear less offensive to them. But in the final analysis, we will need to defend ourselves against their belligerence.
The defensive strategy required is obviously multi-faceted, and there can be no surprise in the fact that almost every major agency and depart- ment of the federal government (and many at other levels of government, too) have been involved in both the Canadian and the American responses.
But one particular requirement may warrant special emphasis. For to do the job as effectively as possible we need to understand not only the ”œterrorists” and their ”œculture,” along with the ways in which they are ”œsocialized,” but also the reality of the circumstances they face, and the various cleavages of wealth, power and status that help to sustain their alienation. In effect, we need first-class ”œintelligence.” Even more, we need first-class intelligence analysts.
For the reasons already indicated, this is not a matter of finding a ”œcure.” It is a matter of knowing one’s adversaries, and of being able to think like them. This, in turn, is not just a ques- tion of being able to understand their culture, but of being able to understand their world in all of its dimensions, so as to be better equipped to pre- dict their behaviour and make the most of their vulnerabilities.
For such a purpose, research is required. So is higher education. And the two go together. We cannot properly staff CSIS, or the DND, or the RCMP, or DFAIT, or the PCO, or the folks in Customs, or in Immigration, without both. Canada is a trifle short of educational and research personnel with these sorts of capacities in most of the fields in which we now seem to need them. We need them, moreover, with ”œcrit- ical mass.” And to get them, we need to fund their training and make it financially possible for them to do their research"not only here, but in the field.
To fill the gap in the short term, of course, we can rely in some measure on our capacity to bor- row enlightenment and instruction from our friends"not just our friends in the United States, but those elsewhere, too. This cannot be a substi- tute, however, for having effective analytical capacities of our own. For there is a strong case for maintaining a certain distance from the assumptions and perspectives that guide the assessments, in particular, of our neighbours. Information liberates. Informational dependency imprisons.
That said, it should be noted that the cultivat- ing of our own analytical capacities can be as use- ful to our neighbours as to ourselves. This is partly because there are things that researchers from a small power can do that researchers from a hege- monic superpower cannot. Canadian social scien- tists asking questions in the Middle East may be tolerated. American social scientists trying to do the same may not. More importantly, however, there are perspectives on ”œreality” that flourish in smaller powers but are quick to die in the more muscular world of the great powers.
In this arena, as in others, there is value in diversity. It inhibits myopia, and inhibiting myopia is helpful to the making of sound policy.
This article has been adapted from a presentation to a recent symposium sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada on the role of research in promoting security in the post-9/11 environment.