A Progressive Response to Terrorism
By Niko Karvounis, Harvard University

"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

Last month, a meeting of the UN Sanctions Committee and the UN Security Council took place over the state of terrorist affairs in our world today. In the course of that meeting, the speaker for Pakistan suggested that the immediate anti-terrorism response must be accompanied by a clear, long-term strategy focusing on ensuring an end to terrorism, which included, among other things, ensuring that counter-terrorism did not violate fundamental human rights or provoke a clash of cultures. He makes a very good point. It is, at least superficially, difficult to completely divorce the tactic from the ideals and cultural practices that inform it.

But terrorism has not only hijacked the reputation of one of the world’s major religions. It has hijacked the faith of the downtrodden. All fundamentalist ideologies thrive because they provide a rationalization for the suffering of the disenfranchised and a promise of a better future state through direct action. Perhaps the most useful example is the case of Germany after World War I. In the throes of a humbling set of conditions that included a huge economic downswing in the face of exorbitant reparations and a seething resentment at the outcome of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany turned to Adolf Hitler.

The hateful and extreme actions of terrorists are responses to a predictable set of circumstances—a dreadful undercurrent of losing agency as a people, a crisis of faith in contemporary power structures, and an overall sense of being merely a shadow of their full potential. Terrorism is a last recourse in the face of hopelessness—it’s about abusing the promise of change.

This is not to imply that terrorists should not be held accountable for their actions. These men are mass murderers, and they must be brought to justice. But swift, retaliatory justice makes less sense when dealing with terrorism than with individual terrorists. To effectively deal with terrorism as a phenomenon, the developed world has to fight terrorism with the one weapon that will truly crush it—hope.

Development is the key to combating terrorism. Not destruction and recreation, but development—working from the inside out. Where America sends armies and planes, terrorist cells are sending individuals who integrate themselves into communities at a local, interpersonal level. They become part of the landscape, indoctrinating young men with their worldview, inconsistently and opportunistically citing religion as their inspiration. It is the abysmal conditions in these locales that give Al Qaeda its appeal.

Thus a sort of internationally supported Marshall Plan for those regions of the world that produce terrorists deserves serious consideration. The Marshall Plan was the main plan of the United States for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. The States contributed some $13 billion dollars of economic and technical assistance toward the recovery of sixteen European countries following the devastation of the Second World War. A similar initiative could successfully combat terrorism. If the world’s empowered nations came together to establish a body responsible for the development of the regions at risk, investing in humanitarian aid, home construction, better medical care, and education—the basic rights of a modern society—then perhaps at-risk nations can integrate themselves into the modern era, where terrorist acts lie outside the paradigm of activism.

In fact, the Arab world has already instituted such developmental programs amongst itself, albeit not necessarily with the intent of combating terrorism. The Islamic Development Bank Group and the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development are two examples of multilateral development financing institutions established to foster social and economic development of member Muslim communities world-wide. The organizing principle behind these groups could be utterly transformative with the resources, direction, and political influence of the world’s big players. International efforts in a vein similar to these organizations could also do much to diffuse the clash of cultures mentality, where cultures and ethnicities see themselves as isolated and not part of a larger international community.

Some of this reasoning behind these arguments for development might sound similar to what Bush has been advocating in Iraq—building an infrastructure and sending in American corporations to spearhead the emergence of new industries and markets. But Bush sees it fit to first decimate the existing society while also being overly concerned with economic gains and ideological imposition. The Bush administration is pushing their narrow vision of democracy at all costs, furthering hostility, resentment, and chaos. The progressive initiative outlined here would be of a more subtle nature and would stress, above all else, the development of cultural confidence, economic sustainability, and hope for a better future.

If necessary, the representatives of this international body could work through local leaders to get these crucial necessities to the people. By the same token, these local leaders would be held accountable for impeding the flow of aid or otherwise initiating hostilities. Military action is not outside of the question. But any force would be justified so long as the efforts remained primarily humanitarian. Any warlord who holds medical supplies from his people, whether by force or by ideological appeals, is fighting an uphill battle against the basic human need.

This would be an expensive endeavor, to be sure, but with an international coalition, sufficient funds should be attainable. The international aspect of the initiative not only spreads the financial burden, but also allows for diverse functions such as coordination of resources and unification of international foreign policy initiatives. With close ties to international security institutions, the body could possibly serve the dual role of serving as a ground-level information source for nipping pending terrorist acts in the bud.

The root of terrorism lies not exclusively in the insanity of its actors, but in the vacuum of hope that exists in disadvantaged areas. International efforts to combat it should focus not on the symptom but on the disease itself. Fundamentalist and extremist ideologies are hideous, and the terrorist acts perpetrated in their names are deplorable. But if the world is truly concerned with eliminating terrorism, then the focus should be on a true pre-emptive strike-- altering the conditions that allow terrorism to thrive.


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