Of Terrorism and War

Article published on March 7, 2002
community published
Article published on March 7, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Or why terrorism cannot and must not be accepted as the continuation of politics by other means.

With the attacks that hit New York and Washington, many believed that the infamous clash of civilisations predicted by Samuel Huntingdon had arrived, although giving different interpretations of the events. For some, the great west envied for it riches and power had been attacked by a barbaric people (proof being the conditions for women in these countries); for others, it was the vile west that was responsible for what happened through all it had visited on the poor countries (who sows the wind reaps the storm).

But a network of terrorists does not constitute a State, much less a people. In this precise case, it is a group of religious fanatics, and in others extremist groups. What has been played out over the last four months is definitely not a confrontation between two worlds, but two successive unilateral actions, that of Osama Bin Ladens terrorist network, followed by the American response.

Terrorism is a new form of war, a means of making politics, a means without hope. Yet it is a means we cannot accept. We can understand it, but not justify it, and even less excuse it. The twinfold attack of September 11th (twinfold in that two targets were hit, but let us not forget that four planes crashed that day), killed nearly four thousand; there are rumours that the American riposte will kill as many again. But of those we shall say little. Not because they are far away, nor from a spirit of vengeance, but because the situation seems different. Not that these victims are less important, for to take life is always serious, whatever the manner in which it is done. But western culture makes these deaths more acceptable, as they are the victims of war.

All lies herein. The expression victim of war is commonly employed, but victim of peace does not exist. It has no meaning for us Europeans. Yet acts of terrorism like those of September 11th took place in peacetime. And for this reason they have awakened an unprecedented fear.

A Different Approach to the War

It is suitable to reflect a while on our past, in order to grasp better the changes that have happened in matters of war. Until the twentieth century, most conflicts between States on the European continent concerned territorial conquest. When a territory was under question, the two countries concerned declared war on each other, gathered their armies and fought. The war ended when one army was defeated, their commanders surrendering. Civilians played no part and it was customary to not include them (even it the examples of bending this rule were numerous). There existed too a certain code of honour: the expression fire first, Englishmen had existed on the battlefield. With the First World War and the beginnings of aviation an implicit rule dictated that you did not shoot at any plane with mechanical problems. Also, to kill a man from behind or when unarmed was at that time considered to be the height of cowardliness (the Americans know this well, having swamped us with Westerns). I speak of Westerns, but I could just as well cite the Seven Samurai of Kuroyawa, for dignity in combat in not only a western value. I do not want to make the apologetic of war, far from it. I simply wish to demonstrate that there was a time when there existed a certain way of fighting to which terrorism does not correspond. This is why it shocks us so much. For the only aim of terrorist attacks is to kill as many innocents as possible in order to terrorise the civilian population. The absence of responsibility adds to the disarray. For this reason I do not want to accept this mode of action, and for this reason I refuse to find attenuating circumstances in these acts.

To Refuse the Poor mans weapon

Of course, with the development of aeronautics, and the improvement of war weaponry the deal has changed, and the old loyal combat has become obsolete. What is more, the west disposes at present of new means of representing its interests without resorting to arms: diplomatic, political, and economic means. One could think of terrorism as the weapon of the poor, the countries of the south not having the means to declare war on a super-powerful north nor the option of political or economic weapons. To those who think this, I would say that terrorism is not a fatality, and much less a finality. Many minority groups have not resorted to this gesture. It is not only because the Basque country has claims to autonomy that ETA commits attacks, for Catalonia also has such wishes and has always refused to use violence. To cite commander Massoud as an example of the non-use of terrorist means would be fashionable, but I prefer to speak of sub-commandante Marcos, who has always claimed the equal rights of ethnic minorities in Mexico, where he has been recognised by the government.

As soon as terrorism becomes acceptable in our eyes, through the barbaric character it supposes, what can be done to curb it? The war against terrorism that America has declared is certainly fed be good intentions, that is to re-establish a stable security zone. Unfortunately, I doubt that systematic pillage is a solution. For these terrorists are inspired by an intangible hatred that the use of arms can only feed. There remains then, in the short term, the solution of real diplomacy based on negotiation; in the long term, especially, to ensure that terrorism seems barbaric to all. Through an effort of education. The propagation of human rights, the apprenticeship of respect to others and all human life. To learn that you can fight without killing, fight with a human face, and that if combat is inevitable, it must still be carried out with dignity. We get angry with children who play war, I have just asked myself if they are not less upsetting that little kids, as they are shown on the television news, dressed as kamikazes with bullet belts around their waists.