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World: Author Says Democracies That Turn To Terror Defeat Themselves

  • Don Hill

Paul Wilkinson specializes in terrorism. That is, Wilkinson -- director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's University of Saint Andrews -- is a world authority on the subject and its causes. In his latest book, "Terrorism versus Democracy," he analyzes how democracies should respond to terrorism. The first step, Wilkinson tells RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill, is that they should remember they are democracies.

Prague, 26 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A foremost authority on terrorism in the modern world says he has found a remarkable paradox.

Paul Wilkinson, author of a newly published book, "Terrorism Versus Democracy," says that open democracies -- which are especially vulnerable to individual acts of terror -- have proved so far virtually invulnerable to sustained terrorist campaigns.

Terrorism as a weapon of war or a tool of domestic control is an ancient concept, Wilkinson writes, with examples recorded back at least to Biblical times. He says that modern terrorism differs from that of the past in its internationalism and in its success in developing support structures.

In democracies that continue to honor the rule of law, Wilkinson says, dissident views have peaceful outlets and terrorists generally fail in attempts to recruit large followings. Thus, while determined people can always commit individual terrorist acts, democracies by their nature inhibit the organization of modern terrorist campaigns.

But, he says, those democracies that turn to terror defeat themselves.

"Those who advocate a policy of terror to fight terror -- those who advocate ignoring human rights considerations, throwing the rule of law out of the window -- are actually risking the destruction of democracy and achieving what an organized group of terrorists probably could never achieve."

The author says that the voices that urge radical and extra-legal responses to terrorism are heard everywhere -- even in the most liberal democracies -- but fortunately do not ordinarily prevail. When a nation does turn to fighting terrorist fire with fire, he says, the results may be short-term successes that breed long-term problems. He mentions Russia's two military campaigns in Chechnya in a decade as an example:

"For example, I think the Russian Federation government listened to those voices in the Chechen conflict in 1994-96 and is again unfortunately responding to that kind of message in the current conflict."

Our correspondent asked the terrorism specialist about the Kosovo conflict and the aerial bombardment conducted there by British and U.S. aircraft. The intervention was undertaken as a humanitarian response to Serb aggression but created damage and civilian casualties of its own. More than two years later the Serbian province still is roiled by violence and ethnic conflict. Was the intervention a wasted exercise?

"Far from being a wasted exercise, it was absolutely vital for the international community to intervene, because the danger was that the Albanian Kosovar population would be forced to flee, many of them killed by the militias, the paramilitary forces of the Serbs. That would have led to a disaster, in terms of sheer numbers of fatalities and injuries. Therefore the international community could not stand by."

Part of the problem that bothers many critics of the Kosovo intervention is that the victims that NATO set out to save -- the Kosovar Albanians -- now have become aggressors targeting as victims their Serb neighbors. People who like their issues simplified by clear divisions of good and bad are troubled when neither side is all good or all bad.

Wilkinson says he is concerned by the recent actions of militant Kosovar Albanians:

"I think that's very sad, but it doesn't show that the international community was wrong to have intervened. What it shows is that the task of restoring a true peace in the Balkans is going to be much more complicated and difficult."

One of the unacceptable qualities of terrorism, Wilkinson says, is that it targets civilians and innocent bystanders indiscriminately. In that case, he was asked, how does he defend high-level aerial bombardment, with its indiscriminate targets, errors, and civilian casualties. Wilkinson declines to mount a defense.

"I think that the moral problem about the ethics of aerial bombardment has long been debated by philosophers and political leaders and should be a matter of concern, because undoubtedly, if you look at the evidence, many modern conflicts where aerial bombardment has been used as a tactic have led to very heavy civilian casualties and it is arguable that the laws of war need to be strengthened and revised."

He says he is not suggesting that the two tactics -- aerial bombardment and intentional terrorism -- are morally equivalent. Nor that an immediate answer can be found to limiting bombing so that only military targets ever are destroyed.

"What I'm suggesting is that we should head in that direction. We should be trying to resolve conflict, trying to protect civilians, trying to increase the pressure on belligerents to bear in mind civilian casualties, humanitarian restraints. The terrorist -- like the war criminal -- ignores these restraints completely."

Wilkinson says in his book and in the interview that terrorists tend to encounter difficulties that they cannot overcome when they try to build passionate followings among the peoples of liberal democracies. But they still comprise great dangers because of the sacrifices they are willing to make to bring off dramatic terrorist acts. The best defense against that, he says, is greater international cooperation.

He says that internationalization of terrorism -- for example the kind of transnational campaign of terrorism that is attributed to Saudi exile Osama bin Laden -- creates a need for greater international cooperation in opposition to terrorism.

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