Democracies must not fall for terrorism’s ‘strategy of provocation’


How can democracies combat terrorism without undermining liberal democratic norms and institutions? Following the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, British Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed restricting internet freedom in order to prevent the spread of jihadist ideology.

But curbing internet freedom is a “quixotic” idea, in that you can’t possibly crack down on every source of hate online, Brookings analyst Will McCants told Vox:

But it seems to be a deep-seated goal of May’s: It echoes a bill that she has been pushing for more than two years to crack down on “extremist” ideology both online and in the physical world. The law would give authorities sweeping new powers, like the ability to close down organizations that they deemed to be preaching anti-democratic extremism. Not preaching violence, mind you — simply political extremism.

A British proverb applies well here: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, notes The Wire’s Emily Dreyfuss:

Though the internet helps terrorists communicate (and celebrate their actions), experts agree it does not cause terrorism, or even do much to radicalize. “The internet is often oversold in terms of radicalization,” says Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism expert at RAND. Despite what you’ve heard, he says, most conversations among extremists occur face to face.

“Traditionally the way [UK extremist group] Al-Muhajiroun have worked is that most of their radicalization has occurred offline,” says Michael Kenney of the University of Pittsburgh who has extensively studied the Al-Muhajiroun extremist group that one of the London attackers has been reportedly linked to. “It occurs in small group settings. It’s a group of guys. They gather, they talk, they indoctrinate each other,” he says. Expanding online surveillance, eliminating full encryption, and even preventing the spread of violent videos can’t eradicate that.

Undermining civil liberties, human rights and democratic institutions would entail capitulating to what Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman, the author of the classic “Inside Terrorism” calls a “strategy of provocation.”

It is important for leaders not to respond viscerally, he told The New York Times. “Any reaction that’s immediate and emotional rather than sober and considered plays into the terrorists’ hands,” Hoffman said.

It’s what old-school communist revolutionaries used to talk about as the “politique du pire” or exacerbating the contradictions: make things as bad as possible; make people turn on each other who had been living peaceably together, then the way will be open to civil war and revolution, The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey adds.

“If the terrorists are attacking us because they hate our freedom and our human rights and our democracy and our secularism and our pluralism, then why would you do their job for them by undermining those very values in your response or reaction to these attacks? argues Maajid Nawaz, founder of Quilliam, the London-based anti-extremist think-tank. “That means we must jealously guard and preserve our way of life, what we stand for, our values that we cherish, because that is the best way to fight these terrorists.”

Europe has also faced periods of more frequent terrorism than in the recent attacks, The New Yorker reports:

Between 1970 and 2015, more than ten thousand people were killed in over eighteen thousand attacks, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. The deadliest decades were, by far, the nineteen-seventies and eighties—during the era of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy’s Red Brigades, Spain’s E.T.A., Britain’s Irish Republican Army, and others. The frequency of attacks across Europe reached as high as ten a week.

But the indiscriminate nature of terrorism today makes it ever harder to contain, says Hoffman.

“It’s very difficult to see how open liberal democratic societies can counter a threat that is much more individualistic, like the attacks in Britain, and that have the feeling of spontaneity,” he added.

Learned indifference

“Terrorism is not necessarily about the number of people you kill; it’s about the terror you create,” said Peter Neumann, the director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. “Lone actors have the capacity to create a lot of mayhem, a lot of polarization, and a lot of division.”

Which is why “perhaps some amount of learned indifference is the only way to cope with the constant threat that terrorism now poses,” says Harvard University’s Yascha Mounk, a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. “This is how Israelis have been behaving for years. But to stay truly sane, we must also remember just how insane the senseless slaughter that has so quickly become commonplace in the hearts of our cities really is.”

In the past several years, there has been a spate of terrorist attacks in which individual Palestinian motorists have run down civilians or Israeli army soldiers. The Israeli security establishment, one of the most effective in the world, cannot seem to predict these attacks or stop them from happening, Vox reports.

An important component of Israel’s struggle against terrorism is its population’s psychology, resilience, and capacity to counter what has unfortunately been one of the characteristics of this state from its very origins: the constant attacks against civilians in the streets, public structures, cafes, and buses, notes analyst Fiamma Nirenstein.

“How do the Israeli people overcome being on the front line against terror? The answer lies in Israel’s history, sociology, education, and social values, from which today’s vulnerable Europe can learn much.”

For democracies facing terrorism, there are two essential pillars, adds Prof. Asa Kasher:

The first principle is the right and duty of self-defense. The second pillar of military ethics of fighting terrorism, guiding warfare in Israel and other democracies, is the duty to respect human dignity. These two pillars are meant to be applied together under all circumstances. A conceptual framework is required in order to understand, explain, and justify practices Israel has used over the decades for facing terrorism.

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