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Special Report -- Viewpoint

Terrorism rooted in social injustices


Even while the death toll is mounting and it is not yet clear how many people have lost their lives in the horrific Sept. 11 terrorist acts, it is vital that we do not limit our discussion to the all-too-narrow view taken by many policy-makers and military experts. Terrorism should not be tolerated and is never justified; the perpetrators should be caught and tried, and security precautions must be taken so that pernicious acts of this kind do not recur. However, these measures are reactive rather than proactive. To eradicate terrorism we need to begin confronting its causes and not merely its symptoms.

Policy makers tend to trace the causes of terrorism to extreme ideology, whose proponents put to use the three Ts: technology, transnationalism and telecommunications. Technology refers to the availability of arms and related tools for carrying out terror. Transnationalism involves the movement of peoples with relative ease across borders, so that terrorists can train in one state, perpetrate their deed in another, and move to a safe haven in a third. Telecommunications is thought to promote terrorism because it guarantees a wider audience, and helps make terrorism a kind of political theater, in which people feel weak and vulnerable.

While the examination of ideology or technological developments is important, it will not disclose terrorism’s root causes. Moreover, military operations, whatever they may be, will not able to strike a deathblow to international terrorism. This suggests that it is high time that we probe the topic from a fresh standpoint.

This entails asking new questions like how does the absence of certain rules and institutions in the international sphere help create conditions whereby groups and states with grievances resort to terrorist violence?

Questions like this do not intend in any way to condone terrorism, but rather to stimulate an investigation of how the development of global institutions such as the international criminal court or a mediation agency -- which would hear and judge grievances -- might help prevent terrorism by providing nonviolent alternatives. Investigations like this are fundamental, and they might even lead to the establishment of such institutions.

Rethinking international terrorism along these lines helps counter the tendency to conceive terrorism as arising from an internal character or disposition that compels the actor toward violence. Paraphrasing the famous French philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, people are not born but rather become terrorists.

Accordingly, terrorism and, more important, the grassroots support that it needs to thrive, should be considered as predominantly arising from social injustices accompanied by a lack of meaningful channels through which political groups or even states might have their grievances redressed. Such an outlook is essential to any effort that strives to curb and ultimately eliminate terrorism.

Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. His essay “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” co-authored with George Lopez, recently appeared in the book Ethics and International Affairs.

National Catholic Reporter, September 21, 2001