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Counter-terrorism: a true popular war

Jim Lederman, 14. juli 2005

Communal trust and public debate between citizens have proven to be the most formidable weapon against terrorists, writes Jim Lederman

As I write these words, a suicide terrorist's bomb has exploded barely 100 kilometres from my home. Three women are dead and more than ninety people have been wounded.

My first encounter with terrorism was in 1968, following a raid by Palestinians on the Israeli kibbutz of Ashdod Yaakov. By the time I got there to report the event, the soldiers had already left. I was told that the incident was over. But it wasn't. A latent, invisible threat had remained. After firing on the kibbutz, the terrorists had left several mines buried along a kibbutz dirt track on which I was travelling. Had it not been for the sharp eyes of the man sitting next to my driver, who noticed and warned us about a slightly discoloured patch in the dust, we would all have been dead. That lesson has never left me. In counter-terrorist warfare, armed forces cannot do the job alone. Collective civil action is the most effective way to contain the threat. There is no more archetypical example of a "popular war" than a dedicated civilian response to terrorism.

Since that event, I have been witness to too many gruesome attacks, both in Israel and elsewhere. I have seen tons of charred and twisted metal frames that were once buses or cars, blood baking on steaming asphalt, and bits of brains and other organs clinging to whatever had not been vaporized after an explosion had been detonated or a body had been eviscerated by automatic rifle fire.

Along the way, I have spoken to hundreds of victims, dozens of forensic scientists and counter-terrorism experts, and even a few would-be terrorists. It's not that I chose to indulge in a form of macabre voyeurism. It is that I came to realise that studying and understanding terrorism and its implications was not just a facet of my job, it was an essential part of protecting my own family and friends.

Knowing how and why terrorism operates as it does, and how it affects people, has enabled me to help others to navigate in terrorist-wracked Jerusalem between two extremes: obsessiveness, despair and fear on the one hand, and wilful ignorance and carelessness on the other. In this, I know that I am not alone. Were it not for the fact that my neighbours and the strangers in the city have learned to act in much the same way as I do, life in the city would have become unbearable. We know what to look for and how to behave in the face of the threat. Most importantly of all, we know that we can trust each other to act in an appropriate manner. Communal trust has proven to be terrorists' most formidable opponent. There is never total safety in the face of terrorism, but there is a greater degree of safety when there is a communal unity of purpose.

My conclusion after all these years is that, given the opportunity and a reasonable level of support by those in positions of authority, average citizens will exhibit an amazing capacity to use common sense in order to overcome the most dire threats posed to them by wanton political killers. So long as they are provided with national fora for debate and the exchange of ideas, their collective wisdom has proven to be more sound than that of the often ideologically competitive and blinkered political and academic elites. No less significantly, by constantly exchanging information and ideas, the average Israeli citizen today knows when he or she is being lied to and when his or her perceived needs are being ignored by the authorities.

Last week, as I watched television, and later read the newspaper reports about the London bombings, I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. There were the eyewitnesses recounting their fears and sense of numbness, the police officials trying to make some sort of sense out of the disorder, the media quickly jumping on any fragment of information, the politicians trying to sound defiant, and the ideologues, such as Tariq Ali, quick to try to squeeze the event into an established storyline that was too hopelessly weak and inadequate to carry it.

But most of all, I noticed what was also blatantly missing: a forum for allowing people to assess what the event meant in terms of national public policy. In too many ways, the media and the pundits treated the bombings as a discrete, unique event that affected only the participants. There was no coverage of the reaction in Hull or Bristol. I was disappointed because allowing expressions of national solidarity with the victims is a critical tool in preventing terrorists from gaining a victory. Terrorists seek victory by dividing nations into fragments. The easiest way to do this is by creating a sharp line between those who have suffered and need support and sacrifices from their fellow countrymen, and those who believe that it is the "others" who must have done something wrong and that terrorists will never visit them.

The model used by the television reporters appeared to be that for the natural disasters or explosions at oil refineries that they cover with greater frequency. The emphasis was first and foremost on the drama of the occasion. When that abated or there was a temporary lull, attention was focussed on who was to blame; and whether those in positions of authority had done their jobs. Average citizens were stereotyped only as victims or mourners, not as potentially important players in deciding how best to prevent or cope with the next tragedy.

There were a few attempts to try to put the explosions in London into a storyline that included narratives about similar attacks that had occurred in places such as Madrid and Istanbul. There was also general, high praise for the calmness of the citizens of London under duress; and comparisons with their behaviour during the blitz. However, the primary image portrayed by the media was that of an assemblage of resolute individuals, not a collective seeking jointly to dissect and to explain what are the implications of the bombings for the future; and what ought to be the tasks ahead.

Put in its simplest terms, no one in the press was openly willing to ask the most fundamental and provocative question: Was this an act of war against a whole people? And if it was a declaration of war, what would such a war entail for everyone? Apparently, in a continent still divided by the scars left from two world wars and the controversy over the invasion of Iraq, the use of the word "war" in a domestic context was almost too politically incorrect to consider. The tendency is to describe any form of political violence as a skirmish with deviants or outlaws—or, worse still, to rationalise it as a reaction to some sort of historic or current maltreatment. That is how the British press has treated the IRA, the Spanish press has described the Basque separatists, and the Turkish press has reported on the Kurdish separatists.

The prevarication is understandable, but should be publicly unacceptable. It is understandable because the very act of asking the question inevitably means defining clearly who the enemy is and who potential allies are. It may be uncomfortable to pinpoint an enemy and even more stressful to admit that an individual or country that had previously been demonised is a true comrade in arms. In a world where multiculturalism and philosophical relativism reign supreme to many, the task of identifying whether an act of violence is part of an all-out war has often proved to be too much of an intellectual and emotional ordeal. However, unless the question is answered, public policy-making becomes futile because there is no central focus for discussion.

From experience, I have found that a vacuum in public policy-making does not last long. It is invariably followed by a crisis of some sort. This is especially true after a shocking event such as a terrorist attack. The drama usually begins when a few selfish individuals try to capitalize on any sign of disorder or instability. Marginal politicians are given a chance to rant. Another good place to look for the first signs that such a crisis is brewing is the stock market. In general, though, when there is an insufficiency of debate on a national level, serious discussion on problem-solving devolves to the pub, the drawing room and the dining table. The problem is that these fora are too small and localized to allow for broad input and a thorough discussion of national and international issues. All that people in small and isolated groups have to guide them as they try to make sense of the disorder are their own immediate perceptions and those of their acquaintances. When that happens, to the seeming surprise of everyone, there is an eventual upswelling of opposition to the government of the day by a large number of uncoordinated groups. This kind of rebellion, however, is not usually accompanied by a proposal for a coherent alternative policy. And so the crisis of confidence deepens. The recent French and Dutch rejections of the proposed European constitution are non-terrorist-oriented examples in point.

In the mass media, the debate about terrorism in general has, so far, focused on a single bottom line: Who is to blame? Depending on the point of view of the speaker, the guilty party may be a middle-ranking bureaucrat such as a policeman who failed to consider the implications of a piece of data, an organisation such as a secret service, a country such as Israel because of its occupation, an ideology such as radical Islamism, a preacher or a phenomenon such as poverty. Then, depending on which guilty party is chosen, a witch hunt begins and the debate degenerates into a battle between supporters or opponents of the supposedly guilty party on whether, how, and how much punishment should be imposed by those in positions of authority. As the argument heats up, other, more-pressing issues—such as how to protect people in the future—are ignored.

One of the most remarkable phenomena of counter-terrorist warfare that I have found is the almost total disconnect between officials who have been involved deeply in anti-terrorist warfare and have retired, and almost everyone else. In their retirement, these individuals have an opportunity to contemplate what they have done for much of their lives - the mistakes they have made, the opportunities they have missed, and the lessons they have learned. But their opinions are rarely sought out. That may be because they tend to speak cautiously and deliberately, without the flair needed to produce a short television sound bite or appear on a talk show. I have interviewed several of them. Almost totally independently, and no matter which country they have come from, I found that they have come to three common, fundamental conclusions. Once terrorism strikes, the first task in any country is to admit that a war is underway. Second, the greatest danger to the public arises when conventional wisdom takes hold and succeeds in directing policy. Third, the greatest danger to a state arises when those in positions of authority lose confidence in themselves and their ability to cope. The retirees' recipe for success is also uniform. In order to deal with the three problems, mass mobilisation of the civilian population is required. A declaration of war can only be made by consensus. Mass input of ideas is the only way to prevent conventional wisdom from taking hold. And constant dialogue and feedback between citizens and those in authority is the only effective national confidence-building mechanism.

It was Thucydides who first pointed out that it is not just kings and mercenaries that wage successful war, but rather whole societies. Wars are simply too important to be left in the hands, not only of generals, but of politicians and bureaucrats as well. What is true of conventional warfare is doubly or triply so for counter-terrorist warfare.

How can mass mobilisation be effected? History has shown that for any country in a state of war, for even a stalemate to be assured, the whole society has not only to define for itself whom one is fighting against, but also it must come to a consensus on what it is fighting for.

In most societies, it is very rare for people to adopt any platform of values in its entirety. Instead, individuals choose bits and pieces of a programme with which to identify and ignore the rest. What countries that want to fight a war effectively need is an umbrella of specified values based on mutual tolerance. The umbrella has to be wide enough to encompass at least a solid majority of the population. What has made the democratic system stronger and more utilitarian than any other system of government in fighting political violence has been its capacity to create just such an umbrella.

There were some commentators who said after the London bombings that now is the time to preserve democracy in the face of an authoritarian threat. They were only partially right. Now, if one can use such an expression, it is even more important to do democracy. This means involving everyone affected, not only in Britain, but elsewhere as well.

Terrorism exhibits two particularly notable characteristics: It attempts to force people to make non-rational decisions while under the influence of violence and the threat of death; and it has no front lines. Too often, particularly in Europe, citizens have been content to let bureaucrats and politicians make decisions for them. In a war against terrorism, that reliance on others to take sole responsibility is an invitation to disaster. Joint, rational decision-making by entire populations is the only effective prescription for success.

Another feature of terrorism is that, contrary to the blandishments and blatherings of some politicians, it cannot be defeated by a few simple, convenient moves. Especially when creating terror is the preferred tactic used by a mass movement, it can only be contained—at least until exhaustion sets in.

The underlying task, then, that any society faces when confronting terrorism is to treat it not as a sequence of isolated, discrete acts, but as a long-term threat that requires long-term planning and commitment. Among other things, this means deciding how to balance cherished beliefs and ideals against the equally cherished desire to remain alive as individuals—and to maintain some degree of social cohesiveness. Open debate has proven to be the only way to create a consensus not only on how that balance can be constructed, but on the roles that can be assigned to individuals. In authoritarian states, terrorist incidents are usually hidden and the public is discouraged from taking part in any political activity. Because of the lack of popular input, dictatorships, when faced with terrorism, eventually do collapse.

"Talking heads" and so-called counter-terrorism experts who appear on television in both authoritarian and democratic states never cease to bombard the viewers with admonitions to be vigilant. But they never explain in detail what the word "vigilance" entails. In the end, it is the public that usually decides what it wants to be vigilant about, what it wants to protect, and what means it intends to use to achieve its aims.

For example, Londoners today are being forced to make a decision that Jerusalemites had to wrestle with three decades ago. Should a total stranger, hired from an unregulated security company have the right to rummage through a woman's purse and deny her the right to enter a cinema if she does not reveal the most personal contents of her bag to the guard and anyone else standing around? At what point, in other words, must personal privacy yield to group needs?

That may be a dramatic example of a decision that has to be arrived at through popular debate. But there are many other, far more subtle but no less important decisions that have to be made that affect individuals both personally and as members of a civil society. In many cases the issue is not just one of balancing rights and responsibilities (as is the case with the purse), but also protecting something more intangible—a society's precious collective identity, its social glue.

Take the issue of the environment as but one example. Within the United States today there is a debate raging about how much protection chemical plants should have – and who should pay the security costs. The debate encompasses the right to private property, the right to life, and the responsibility to preserve all life – not just human life. This case falls clearly into the category of rights versus responsibilities.

However, if one looks closely, there are a number of other environmental questions that terrorism raises in which the issues of national mobilisation and/or national self-identity are more prominent. Let me take just one example that encompasses both mass mobilisation and national self-identity, but which at first glance appears to be completely off the wall: the design of garbage containers and their accessibility.

One of the ways in which many societies in the modern world have created a national glue is by rallying people around the common cause of ecologically-sound waste disposal. In many countries, part of the citizens' national self-identity is expressed every morning when they proudly separate cans and bottles, paper and vegetable wastes into separate, closed and inaccessible containers for collection. I think it is safe to say that more people in the West engage in this activity than salute their flag. But in a war against terrorism, these otherwise noble actions may be foolish and counterproductive to the maintenance of the commonweal.

The logic is quite simple. If we make an assumption that in the war against terrorism there are no front lines, then each individual, willy-nilly, becomes a solitary sentinel with potential responsibility for the safety of the square metre or so that he or she occupies at any one time. That is the rationale behind the signs in the London Underground asking "Who's bag is it?" The sign is of no use as a warning that abandoned bags may contain bombs, though, unless there is someone standing beside such a bag who is willing to take responsibility for looking for the unusual and voicing the question aloud. It is clear that individuals need to be motivated to take the effort to call out. If people are to be mobilised to protect the square metre they may currently be inhabiting – and maybe dozens of square metres around them – we have to give them an incentive to take personal responsibility for their bit of personal turf. It is unlikely that, in the normal course of events they would consider a mall hallway or a potholed sidewalk to be an area of personal responsibility. In order to encourage them to take responsibility, we have to make them feel that they are an important part of a larger project. That includes showing them that there are others, even some individuals whom they may have never considered, who are doing the same thing at the same time.

Thus, the issue is not just mass mobilisation, but also mass motivation over time. After a terrorist attack, the police are invariably flooded with tips, but the phone calls taper off as people return to their normal lives. Keeping motivation high becomes more difficult. One way is by keeping the level of discussion high, even during periods of relative quiet. This is not obsessiveness, it is common-sensical. As new ideas are raised, the very novelty acts as a reminder to everyone of the underlying threat. Terrorists invariably wait to act until people have lowered their guard. More importantly, constant discussion is the primary means by which people can internalise behaviours, such as looking out for suspicious parcels, so that they become automatic.

All of which brings us back to the issue of garbage pails. One of the bits of currently-prevailing public prejudice is that only owners of the receptacles, or their authorized agents such as dustmen, have the right to open waste containers. We usually go even further to ensure that this bit of conventional wisdom is carried out to the full. To that end, municipally-supplied, closed garbage receptacles are specifically designed to allow people to put things in, but to prevent rummagers from looking inside or taking things out. However, consider the case of the proverbial and caricatured granny walking her dog and peering surreptitiously into the dustbins of her neighbours, or, far more commonly, the homeless men and women who scrounge for bottles and cans in order to redeem the deposit. There is no more territorially-vigilant, and active a group in society than these outsiders. If one looks at the situation rationally, they are the only ones who are capable of finding and reporting the presence of randomly-placed bombs in public places. In Jerusalem, the scroungers have developed a very sophisticated technique of gently moving the upper layers of waste bins about with the tips of their fingers without seriously disturbing any of the interior contents. Only when they are satisfied that there is no danger to themselves, do they retrieve their prize. More than once, they have found suspicious objects, alerted passers-by and saved lives.

My point is that, in the battle against terrorism, inclusivism is not an abstract ideal, it is a necessity. And some conventional practices, such as sorting trash, sensible as they may seem to be during normal times may, in fact may be damaging to the commonweal. A third lesson is that even seemingly off-beat ideas are worth at least a public hearing.

The list of considerations that needs to be brought up for debate is almost endless. In counter-terrorist warfare, a guiding principle should be that anyone has the potential to be a warrior and everyone has a bit of expertise to contribute. Experience in Israel and elsewhere has shown that the real frontline combatants are often those we would least expect to find in any war in which guns are fired and bombs detonated.

I will mention just one additional, but very important example. It is almost axiomatic that even before a counter-offensive in a war can be launched, a frontline combatant's first task is damage control in the face of an opponent's assault. We tend to think that damage control in civilian areas is the task only of policemen, firemen and ambulance drivers. However, almost all the studies that have been done on the impact of terrorist attacks have found that the greatest damage inflicted by terrorists is not physical—even when the destruction reaches the horrendous level of something like the firestorm and the resulting deaths of thousands that accompanied the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The greatest damage is inflicted on the survivors. Daily economic and social life can be disrupted in whole communities, even those thousands of miles away from a terrorist event. Just ask employees at the Boeing plant in Seattle what happened in the years after 9/11 when the number of passenger seat-miles on airplanes dropped precipitously.

Of even greater significance, though, is the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on individuals. Normally active individuals can become dysfunctional. They can suffer from everything from tingling in the fingers to a total inability to get up in the morning. The result of this dysfunction is literally immeasurable because it is so great and so widespread after a terrorist attack. Studies done in both Israel and Gaza, indicate that the greatest long-term impact random violence has had on children is the creation of a pandemic of PTSD.

The ones who are at the front line in damage control of this sort are the friends, relatives, emergency-room doctors and nurses, social workers, teachers and clergy who are usually totally untrained to provide the services necessary to prevent long-term loss of individuals' ability to function effectively. Only public debate will resolve the issue of whether tax dollars should be spent on public education and on extended psychological training for these sorts of "first responders." Should we not ask, for example, whether refresher courses in treating terrorist-created PTSD should not be mandatory for professional license renewal or a condition for parish postings? And is it not reasonable to consider whether first aid should be made a compulsory subject of study by middle school?

Leaving issues of such import up to an elite of academics, bureaucrats, the media and politicians is a recipe for disaster because the result usually is a compromise between institutional imperatives of each of the elitist groups, rather than a balancing of the needs and resources of the people most affected.

It is time to silence the pundits and commentators who seek only to blame or to incite. As well, for an issue as complex as counter-terrorist warfare, leaving the responsibility for decision-making only to an elite is woefully insufficient. Now is the time to open the floor for a thorough public discussion of all the issues. In my forty years of experience as a journalist and analyst, I have invariably found that the most important information I have been able to gather has come from ordinary people, whom I spoke to without my having had any prior agenda in mind, who provided me with answers to questions that I didn't have enough experience or sense to ask.

This article is published by Jim Lederman, and appeared originally on openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. To view the original article, please click here.


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Opdateret d. 3.10.2005