Scaring away terror

Terrorism is getting nastier. Compare and contrast the anarchists and nihilists of the 19th and early 20th centuries who shot kings and presidents, with the Chechen separatists who have killed 350 children and teachers. Recall the indignation that accompanied Irish Republican Army (IRA) failures to give warnings of their bombs, thus killing innocents.

Palestinian suicide bombers are not noted for giving warnings.

It is hard for any of us who are members of a bourgeois democratic society to pierce the mind of a terrorist capable of murdering children in hundreds to publicise a cause.
Yet although the means have become more hideous, the terrorist’s character has not changed much since the 19th century.

Consider the description of Sergei Gennadievich Nechayev by the revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, writing to a friend in 1869: “I have here one of those young fanatics who knows no doubts, who fears nothing and who has decided quite definitely that many of [his kind] will have to perish at the hands of the government [yet] will not let this stop them until the Russian people arise. They are magnificent, these young fanatics, believers without God, heroes without rhetoric.’‘

Nechayev killed only a modest number of people before dying in a czarist prison, but he advocated murder as an essential tool of revolution. Once the methodology of killing innocents is accepted, the question of how many may reasonably be liquidated at any one time becomes a marginal issue.

There are three reasons for the 21st-century terrorist escalation. First, it is much easier to attack undefended civilians than military installations or rulers. Second, the Muslims responsible for most contemporary terrorism are untroubled by even such modest scruples as the IRA possessed. Finally, extraordinary outrages gain extraordinary attention. No conceivable action by the Chechens could have gained them as much attention as the massacre of children.

The massacre places immense pressure on the Russian government to identify targets for retaliation. Here is the purpose of the terrorist, defined by Lawrence Durrell in Bitter Lemons, a classic account of the 1950s Eoka insurgency in Cyprus: “His primary objective is not battle. It is to bring down on the community in general a reprisal for his wrongs, in the hope that fury and resentment roused by punishment meted out to the innocent will gradually swell the ranks of those from whom he will draw further recruits.’‘

I have always thought this passage should be framed above the desks of every politician and soldier charged with countering terrorism.

If we assume that it is undesirable to accommodate the aims of our enemies, then the need seems paramount to focus vengeance solely on the guilty. Israel does itself relentless harm by venting its spleen for suicide bombings on the Palestinian people. The Russians in Chechnya have adopted policies of ruthless repression that appear only to have fulfilled Durrell’s dictum by increasing support for the separatists.

The sole historical example I recall for the success of savagery in containing insurgency is that of the Nazis in occupied Europe. Only in Yugoslavia was the wartime resistance movement a real military success. To this day, many people in France possess reservations about whether armed opposition to the occupiers was worthwhile when the cost of each German soldier killed was measured in the lives of dozens of innocent hostages.

In 1980 I interviewed members of the SS Das Reich division, which was responsible for several hideous French massacres in June 1944, most notably the killing of more than 600 civilians at Oradour-sur-Glane, following the resistance kidnapping of a German officer.

An old SS man, sitting in his comfortable retirement bungalow in Bavaria, demanded with bewilderment: “Why was there so much trouble about this one incident in France? In Russia, such things happened every day.’’ He went on to suggest that the Das Reich’s action at Oradour had achieved its purpose, since there was no further significant resistance activity in the region during the last weeks of German occupation.

It is customary to regard such extreme counter-insurgency methods as unique to the Nazi era. However, it is worth recalling a 1966 conversation in Vietnam between Neil Sheehan of The New York Times and United States commander General William Westmoreland. Sheehan asked Westmoreland if he was troubled by the number of Vietnamese civilians killed by indiscriminate bombing and shelling. The general answered: “Yes, Neil, it is a problem, but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?’’ Here was the ethos that made possible the My Lai massacre. When an enemy is faceless, the rage and frustration of soldiers charged with suppressing insurgency are readily vented on the innocent. This happens constantly in Chechnya, while Russia’s President Vladimir Putin systematically suppresses those courageous Russian journalists who seek to expose its manifestations.

The difficulty for all governments in addressing terrorism is that this is best done by undramatic, even invisible means: intelligence, politics, diplomacy, special forces operations.

US President George W Bush persistently abuses the word “war’’ to describe the task facing his own nation since 9/11, which also perpetuates a delusion that it can be addressed by firepower. Bush also seems willing to regard all terrorists, whether Palestinian or Chechen or al-Qaeda, as faces of a common phenomenon. He indulges both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Putin in any means they see fit to suppress those who use terrorist methods, without heed to the need for diverse political responses, as well as sensitive military tactics.

One suspects that Nechayev would have asked himself only one question about last weekend’s massacre: Has it advanced the Chechen cause? Whether we like it or not, it may have done.

Once the world’s surge of compassion for the victims has faded a little, the challenge for any responsible government is to assess terrorism, whether that of Chechnya or Palestine or al-Qaeda, without sentiment.

The only questions that should matter are whether the grievances represented by a given movement receive a political as well as a military response (such as the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland), or whether governments persist with exclusively military policies (such as Sharon, some people in Washington whose names momentarily escape me, and Putin).

The fact that what happened in Ossetia last weekend is unspeakable does not make Putin any more likely to win his Chechen war. — Â

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