Prophetic Counterterrorism: Avoiding the Insanity of Repeated Failure

In a recent Time magazine article, Nancy Gibbs suggested that one of the chief lessons of the Fort Hood shootings might be this: the nature of terrorism is changing. Gibbs quotes Bruce Hoffman, a former CIA scholar-in-residence and Georgetown University terrorism expert, who claims that al Qaeda’s new strategy may be “to empower and motivate individuals to commit acts of violence completely outside any terrorist chain of command.”

In other words, terrorist groups may be using the internet and other communication outlets to help turn potential violent extremists into actual ones—disseminating their propaganda so as to radicalize individuals who don’t have actual ties to an extremist group, but who develop a sense of allegiance, and are willing to act on it.

If this is true, terrorists will be much harder to identify and capture. Without an organized plot, without communication among the conspirators, without the planning and arranging that sends inadvertent signals, homeland security operatives won’t have much to go on.

The result may be an increasing emphasis on prejudicial profiling to expand the scope of domestic surveillance of the private lives of individuals who have done nothing wrong (other than commit the “crime” of, say, being Muslim). In other words, the success of forceful interdiction of terrorists may depend on increasing both discrimination and “big brother” intrusions into individual privacy.

Unless, of course, we radically rethink our approach.

Violence Begets Collateral Damage Begets Violence

The fact is that the secular world, in confronting evil, has long relied on one solution: the use of coercive power to violently incapacitate those who do evil and, in the process, deter those who are considering it. Alongside this tactic, and in opposition to it, there has been, for centuries, a quiet but steady religious message—a message one is most likely to hear not within the religious establishment (so often co-opted by secular institutions of power) but by the more prophetic voices, the voices of those who see a disconnect between the status quo and the message emanating from our most profound encounters with the divine.

The message is this: violence begets violence. Hate cannot drive out hate. We need to distinguish between fighting evil and fighting evildoers. Evil will be overcome not through the spread of force and fear, but through the spread of compassion and empathy.

For as long as this quiet message has been voiced, the response of the secular establishment has been to dismiss it as unrealistic. “Sure,” goes the reply, “that may work in private life when everyone involved is reasonable, but it isn’t going to work to stop the crazies out there. Especially the ones with guns, or armies, or bombs. We need to take out the crazies before they get us.”

But a study of the history of fighting terrorism might inspire us to rethink who, precisely, is being unrealistic. In a forthcoming article in The Journal of Moral Philosophy, I argue that the term “terrorism,” which is used in so many competing ways, might be most usefully defined as the use of violence in which an individual or group, motivated by an in-group/out-group ideology, indiscriminately targets members of the ideologically defined “out-group” in pursuit of the “in-group’s” sacred mission or purpose.

If this is what we mean by the term “terrorism,” there are numerous ways in which the conventional strategy of force is, well, unrealistic. First of all, those who are indoctrinated into the terrorist ideology are often perfectly willing to die for the sake of the in-group’s cause. In fact, they often expect to die. They are not going to be deterred by the threat of a violent response from the state.

This means that the state can’t hope that where it falls short in forceful interdiction it will gain ground in deterrence. If terrorists are to be stopped, they must be caught or killed. Governments often find themselves increasing the scope and intensity of their violent anti-terrorism strategies. Since terrorist groups are typically the radical fringes of a larger community with which they identify, and within which they are embedded, increasing the scope and intensity of violence inevitably harms innocents—what is euphemistically called “collateral damage.”

That Old Insanity

The predictable result is moral outrage among members of this broader community to which the terrorists belong. And that outrage is used by the terrorists to fuel their propaganda, to make their ideology of hate increasingly attractive. And so a larger percentage of the targeted community becomes radicalized. More people see the world through the terrorist’s ideological lens and become willing to blow themselves up in the effort to pursue the in-group’s mission against the demonized out-group.

While this pattern is readily identifiable in the decades of conflict between Israel and Palestine, the United States has been courting a similar one. In its military efforts to disable al Qaeda, the U.S. has succeeded in providing fuel for radical Islam’s rhetoric, with its image of a world divided between the faithful and the infidel and the Great Satan threatening the very survival of God’s faithful servants.

The “collateral damage” of America’s war on terror serves as fertile soil in which allegiance to an ideology of hate can take root and grow. And now that it has taken root to such devastating effect in an officer of the US Army, what happens next? Do we respond by treating all Muslims as suspect, as potential terrorists, and so produce a new kind of collateral damage, innocent people who are systematically discriminated against because of their religion?

What do we expect the result will be? Do we expect that, magically, our increased willingness to harm the innocent members of a group in order to wipe out the radical fringe will somehow, this time, have a different result? That’s not merely unrealistic—it verges on a kind of insanity.

But if it is insanity, it’s not a new kind. It’s been around for at least as long as recorded history. But so has this quiet religious voice, which discovers in the mystical experience of union with the transcendent an alternative approach to fighting evil. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to stop dismissing that voice as unrealistic and begin listening to it. Maybe it’s time for governments to begin seriously asking what a public policy response to terrorism that’s based on spreading compassion and empathy, rather than spreading force and fear, would look like.

Are there ways for nations to deliberately break down the divisive ideologies of extremists? Are there things governments can do to forge human connections across ideological divides? And what effect would such practices have on the occurrences of terrorism in the world?

Perhaps the secular world isn’t yet ready to identify the quiet voice of religious nonviolence with the wisdom of God. But is it ready, at least, to acknowledge how unrealistic its own policies have been, and to start investigating the possibility of something more compassionate and more forgiving? Is it ready to admit that focusing on “taking out” the crazies has too often led to a proliferation of insanity?

For the sake of the world, I hope so.