After the Boston Attack: The Terrible Truth About Terrorism

Whatever the final truth about the Boston bombing will turn out to be, it is time to realize a simple, and terrible truth about terrorism: It is here to stay.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

First my heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims of the Boston Marathon terror attack, and my best wishes for convalescence to the wounded. As many commentators have written already, unfortunately in Israel we have had so much experience with terror attacks that we have developed many ways to cope with it psychologically, practically, in terms of security measures and medically. But the U.S. has already shown its resilience in the face of terror, and I am sure that Boston, a city I cherish, will recover its spirits quickly.

For the time being, nobody knows whether international (presumably jihadist) or domestic (presumably white supremacist) individuals or groups perpetrated the Boston attack, even though first indications seem to favor the hypothesis of a domestic attack.

Whatever the final truth will turn out to be, it is time to realize a simple, and terrible truth about terrorism: It is here to stay.

This statement is neither meant to be defeatist, or to argue that we should not do everything in our power to prevent it. It is to say that in the era of global communication networks there will always be individuals or groups who have some grievance they try to address by dramatic acts of destruction that sow fear, confusion, or, in brief: terror. Legal scholar and strategist Philip Bobbit has argued convincingly that terrorism is the form of war that will be prevalent in the twenty first century. If we do not realize that terrorism will never be eradicated completely, we are bound to make terrible mistakes in fighting it; mistakes that undermine the freedom of our societies, and will do little to actually lower the danger of further terrorism.

Let me summarize a few lessons I have learned in almost a decade of cooperating with leading terrorism researchers in the World Federation of Scientists. First and foremost I learned that terrorism comes in many shapes and variations. Some forms of terrorism are asymmetrical warfare trying to achieve specific goals like self-determination for the Basques, Chechnya or Palestine.

Others have much less clearly-defined goals, and are governed by what historian and psychoanalyst Charles Strozier has called the apocalyptic mindset: The Baader-Meinhoff group in Germany wanted nothing less but to destabilize the German state. White supremacists in the U.S. want nothing less but to turn the U.S. into a “pure” white society. Some Islamists want nothing less but the revival of the caliphate and Islamic domination of either the whole Middle East or the world as a whole. And some Jewish Messianic groups want nothing less than building the Third Temple in Jerusalem, and an Israel ruled by Biblical Law.

Because terrorism is motivated and generated by very different factors, there is no such thing as a "war on terror" any more than there is such a thing as "the war on illnesses." AIDS needs very different cures and preventions than cancer or flu-pandemics. Similarly, each form of terrorism needs to be studied and fought on its own terms.

The second thing I learned is that there are two basic knee-jerk reactions to terrorism, and that both are wrong in their exclusive emphasis on one element.

Conservatives say, “Terrorists are evil. Never talk to them, only punishment and superior force will defeat terrorism.” Liberals say, “Terrorists are human beings. You need to understand their motivations, mostly born out of frustration, perceived injustice and humiliation, and to address their grievances.”

Both these knee-jerk reactions have very partial truth and effectiveness. The conservative reaction embodied in George W. Bush’s conception of the War on Terror does not realize that most of today’s global terror networks cannot as such be defeated, because, unlike armies, they are often not organized as hierarchical chains of commands. Al-Qaida is an organization; but most of all it is a state of mind that pulsates through the Islamic world, primarily in the Internet. The groups that perpetrated 9/11, 7/7 in London and the Madrid bombings were not recruited and trained by a central organization, but organized spontaneously without connection to a central command. This is why killing terrorist leaders will always have limited effectiveness: As long as the jihadist state of mind is growing in the Islamic world, new terror groups will emerge time and again, as former CIA officer and psychiatrist Marc Sageman has shown.

The liberal reaction assumes that the source of all terrorism is to be found in wrongdoings by the West ranging from colonialism to U.S. interference in many areas of the world. But it does not take into account that, in many cases, the grievances, perceived humiliations and injustices cannot be addressed directly. Many of the youngsters who gravitate towards terror networks are incensed by the humiliating fact that much of the Islamic world is way behind the developed world economically, militarily and culturally. Their frustration is aggravated by an enormous youth-bulge in much of the Islamic world. Without any viable hope for a fruitful life, they try to regain dignity and the sense of living a meaningful life by committing to the jihadist cause – a process documented in detail by anthropologist Scott Atran.

The problem with the liberal response is that no form of global social work can address all of these grievances. Islamic societies often experience well-meaning interventions trying to help them to modernize as just another humiliation, and these attempts often cannot cope with these societies’ enormous internal complexities. The colossal failures of the U.S. in promoting state building in Afghanistan and Iraq show that the West and the liberal position does not take into account that certain grievances cannot be addressed by any realistic policies: America will not become purely white; the Caliphate will not be reinstated; and the Third Temple will not come from heaven in the Messianic age.

The conclusion from all this is that none of us will ever have a final solution for terrorism. Conservatives are right in saying that we must be vigilant and that, in many cases, there is no way around using violence in combating terrorism. But they are wrong if they think that if you just use enough power, you’ll get rid of it. Liberals are right that if we don’t try to understand and address the root-causes of terrorism, the War on Terror is bound to generate even more terrorist organizations and acts. But they are wrong in thinking that if we just show enough empathy for terrorists’ motivations, they will all become law-abiding citizens.

We would all like terrorism to disappear, but this is wishful thinking. There is no alternative to keeping a clear and cool mind, even in the face of the horror perpetrated by terrorist acts. If we lose our minds, terrorism wins.

Medical workers aiding injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion, Monday, April 15, 2013.Credit: AP

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