Terrorism: A Unitarian-Universalist Response

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church, Sunday July 8, 2012

In contemporary history, much is shaped by the term "terrorist", a relatively new term for the common lexicon, which came to prominence following the events of September 11, 2001, where four coordinated attacks were carried out against the United States, resulting in almost three thousand deaths. It launched a so-called "War On Terror" in response, which has led to massive restrictions and spying by the state apparatus against civilians, the invasion of Afghanistan in response, the utterly unjustified and criminal invasion of Iraq, with further operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. Casualties range from anywhere between 62,000 and 1.1 million in Iraq, and 11,000 to 50,000 in Afghanistan. More accurately, the number of U.S. personell consists of almost 6,000 killed and almost 43,000 wounded. A March 2011 Congressional report estimated the financial cost to be $1.2 trillion, whereas an academic study a month later, covering additional areas of related expenditure, put the figure at $2.7 trillion. Understandably many ask whether this "War on Terror" is the right response.

We may think ourselves even today as being somewhat distant from that infamous event. But we can be reminded that eleven members of Unitarian-Universalist congregations died on September 11. Five worked in the World Trade Center. Keith Coleman, 34, and Scott Coleman, 31, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. They had been associated with the Unitarian Church of Westport, Connecticut. Valerie J. Hanna, 57, a foster parent to at least 17 children, and a member of First Unitarian Society of Ithaca. One was a passenger on one of the planes that struck the towers. Edward Hennessy Jr., 35, of the First Unitarian-Universalist Church in Belmont, Massachustus. One worked in the Pentagon; Craig Amundson, 28, a computer graphics specialist, a member of the Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria, Virginia. Richard Myhre, 37, was part of, and married at the Unitarian Church of Staten Island. Todd Ouida, 25, grew up in the Central Unitarian Church of Paramus, New Jersey. A family of four died on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Charles Falkenberg, 45, Leslie Whittington, 45, and their children, Zoe, 8, and Dana, 3, of Hyattsville, Maryland, died on board American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. They were en route to Australia. The family was affiliated with the UU Church of Silver Spring, Maryland, and Paint Branch UU Church, of Adelphi, Maryland.

Perhaps you have heard the saying, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". This phrase, popularised from the novel on the Provisional IRA "Harry's Game", by Gerald Seymour, is an example of the thoughtless slogans of moral relativism which unfortunately small minds accept readily, and who are apparently ignorant of the grim irony in the expression; as the story progresses neither side can win, and the body count of the innocent grows. Whilst some superficial theorists might try to suggest that there is a difference between the the end of freedom with the means of terrorism, there is a strong tendency for means to become ends, the lofty ideals of an organisation's origins forgotten, deferred, and diluted, as the practicalities of achieving short term goals, through whatever means necessary, become the overriding priority. It should be quite evident that if one is engaging in terrorism, they are not fighting for freedom.

It is true that the precise definition of terrorism is still subject to some debate, although in recent years it has sharpened. It is accepted that the word was first used as official French government policy of the Jacobins in the period known as the Reign of Terror from September 1793 to July 1794. During that period some forty thousand civilians were subject to summary executions, with Maximilien Robespierre remarking: "Terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible"; an interesting statement given his prior opposition to the death penalty. The French are not, of course, the only modern state that has practised terrorism - they just invented it. Those regimes that combined extreme levels of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, such as the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, and Nazi Germany from the early 1930s to the mid 1940s are typically cited as classic examples of state terrorism. Professor Igor Primoratz of Charles Sturt University, a contemporary expert on the subject, points out that both regimes targeted civilians, almost unpredictably, through powerful political police for the express purpose of preventing any opposition, or even spirit of opposition.

Today there is only a handful who seriously claim that states do not or, through legal chicanry, cannot engage in terrorism. There is a pathetic argument that tries to frame terrorism around the notion of unlawful violence, raising procedural law beyond its foundations in justice and is invariably carried out by those who wish to protect the actions of particular states from negative claims of terrorism. Michael Mann, Professor of Sociology, UCLA starts by saying "I Define a 'terrorist' as a non-state actor who attacks civilian targets in order to strike terror into the hearts of the enemy community" but then goes on to say "A 'state terrorist' is a state doing the same thing." So even with the attempted exclusion aside there is some general agreement arising the United Nations, the European Union, and various academics which for the purposes of discussion can be synthesised as follows: Terrorism is the systematic use of intimidating violence against civilian non-combatants for the purpose of inducing political change.

By systematic what is meant is a planned, organised, deliberate, and strategic decision. By intimidating violence it is noted the purpose of terrorism isn't to destroy the infrastructure or kill the civilians that are on the receiving end of the violence; it is to intimidate the population, to create a climate of fear, and awareness of the terrorist's ideology. By non-combatants, the target is identified. Whether opportunistic, or symbolic, the choice of the non-combatant is a deliberate part of the strategy. The terrorist is not engaging in a military conflict, they are engaging in a psychological war, to break the spirit of their opposition. As terrorism cannot hope to directly achieve its political agenda, it can only hope to induce chaotic circumstances, or induce reactions so heavy-handed that the choice between the terrorists and their opponents becomes moot. This applies to state and non-state actors; when the Syrian government launches airstrikes or uses artillery against civilian population centres such as Homs, the objective is the same - break the spirit of resistance in the civilian population, induce terror among them.

Having provided a working definition of terrorism it is possible to consider various responses. At one extreme, and which is always considered as a baseline is "do nothing". Such a reaction would be absolutely maddening to a terrorist, for it would represent a failure of their prime objective - to cause terror. More realistically is various non-violent responses, such as the proposal of Gandhi for the Jews to non-violently resist Hitler. The Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers, also advocate non-violent responses to terrorism in the anthology "Answering Terror" after many months of debate in their journals. The Quaker theologian, Walter Wink, remarks that: "Rather than abandoning nonviolence because we have not yet learned how to use it effectively, we might test it by trial and error. We have massive corroboration that nonviolence has worked in cases of national liberation. The world has been lurching toward democracy of late, and democracy is the institutionalization of nonviolence. For those with eyes to see, the proliferation of nonviolence can be regarded as the work of the Holy Spirit in history." Obviously even Quakers are fallible on this matter however. Many will remember President Richard Nixon, who approved secret bombing of North Vietnamese positions in Cambodia (a total which was greater than the amount of bombs dropped by the allies in World War II, and authorised invasions and incursions in Cambodia and Laos. President Nixon was, of course, a Quaker.

It is meaningful of to differentiate between responses to terrorists in the short term and longer term strategies of prevention. When confronted with a terrorist that poses an imminent threat, whether a state or non-state actor, the overwhelming priority must be to remove their capacity to induce terror, to stop them from killing civilians. This can be derived from the utilitarian "just war" doctrine, of Roman Catholic origin, but which also appears in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. From a more modern perspective, such justifications are legally codified in the United Nations Charter which allows for actions for individual or collective self-defense, and, against terrorist states, the right to revolution against tyrannies that do not protect human rights, is stated in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments and civilians have the legal and moral right to protect themselves against terrorist activities and the potential of terrorist activities.

But how is this to be done? Obviously the immediate response does involve the use of force because the terrorist does not wish to lose their capacity to terrorise. But the degree and the process is important to ensure that the prevention does not become a "cat's paw", causing terrorism itself. Certainly the reaction of the United States and their allies to the attacks of September 11 certainly fall into this category. The establishment of extrajudicial detention, such as Guantanamo Bay detention camp, is both contrary to the UN Declaration of Human Rights and an example of what terrorists do. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 and Protect America Act of 2007, radically extended the State's surveillance capabilities, authorised indefinite detention, and allowed searches without court orders, is an example of what terrorists do. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 allowed for testimony to coerced from suspected terrorists and other enemy combatants, removing politicians, CIA interrogators, and US Army soldiers, immunity to legal prosecution for torture, is an example of what terrorists do. The extensive use of torture, as shown by the Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo revelations, is an example of what terrorists do. Is it little wonder that many wryly remark when hearing of such acts "The terrorists have won"? As Noam Chomsky puts it "Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism".

Chomsky's remarks is instructive on how genuine revolutionaries can respond to state terrorism, as does the series of essays by Hannah Arendt on the subject. As a series of cascading actions, first is the educational work so awareness exists throughout a society that the State is not protecting basic rights and dignity, and is acting deliberately against them, thus causing a loss of legitimacy. Then there is the campaign of non-violent civil disobedience which actually provides an opportunity for a society's rulers to see reason and reform or suffer the consequences. If reaction results, and it usually does, for those who seek dictatorial power usually lack the breadth of mind to see beyond what they control, then begins a period of revolutionary transformation. This transformation provides the freedom, the democracy, and the welfare, that the former State would not. The revolutionaries against state terrorism engage in sabotage, in targeting a hated military or secret police and as long as the insurrection and insurgency acts to defend those principles universally, then a state terrorist regime - perhaps except in cases with massive technological superiority - will inevitably be defeated, not by direct military means, but by defections and a total loss of morale and legitimacy.

The Unitarian-deist, Benjamin Franklin, was remarkably prescient when he penned the words "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety". Of course, for certain State leaders, restricting liberty in the name of safety is exactly what they desire. They are certainly fans of selective freedom, and selective democracy. In particular the "democratic capitalists", of which George W. Bush, Tony Blair, John Howard and their kin, believe in the freedom of monopolistic capital and the use of majority prejudices and fears to dominate potential opposition. As George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that a war on terror is impossible: "Terror cannot be destroyed by weapons or signing a peace treaty. A war on terror has no end." The political strategy in place, and it has a high degree of effectiveness, is that as long as the level of oppression is not as bad as the experience of terrorism itself, then the population will stay subservient. An alternative strategy, one of providing political freedoms and economic wealth that approaches that experienced in advanced liberal democracies, with education, health-care, employment, and housing is one that certainly needs to be given greater prominence.

But would such an approach be effective against non-state terrorists? Would it reduce the potential of the disenfranchised and the improverished of becoming terrorists? Would it lead to existing terrorists reconsidering their approach? This requires an understanding of the terrorist and the causes of their decision to take up arms in such a manner. It is, of course, easy to condemn a terrorist for their acts, for their moral disengagement of the violence they inflict on others. But in order to prevent them in the future, they must be understood. This is a little more difficult. The popular claim that terrorists are crazed and pathological, explored in terms narcissist aggression, does exists as a contributing factor. More commonly in serious literature, numerous sociologists have argued that the aggressiveness is a function of political and economic dispossession, sometimes expressed as negative identity formation. Certainly unemployed young men with poor social integration as a prime recruiting ground for terrorist organisations, inspired by what is perceived as a just or moral cause in the case of the educated, or an opportunity for adventure and excitement for those who are not. Terrorists typically do not regard themselves as such but rather as soldiers, martyrs, revolutionaries etc. Others note that terrorist groups become a subculture in their own right, with specific groups exerting a cult mentality. A particular example of this case would be the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, an organisation of extreme violence. Increasingly fundamentalist and plagued by internal conflict, under Antar Zouabri, they came to the conclusion that even the entire Muslim world were legitimate targets for their terrorism, as everyone else except them, were heretics.

One vector however that deserves particular attention is foreign interventions which damage or suppress the self-determination of local civilians. The CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who worked on the Al Qaeda task force, notes in "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror" that the opposition to the United States in the Islamic world is not due to the Bill of Rights or secularism or other civil and democratic rights sometimes enjoyed by its citizens. Rather it is a tangible, visceral reaction to U.S. policies in the middle-east, such as uncritical support for Israel and its policy of apartheid in the occupied territories, its support for corrupt dictatorships for economic and political gain, and its ready use to engage in military intervention contrary to the wishes of the population.

The Rev. Douglas Morgan Strong, minister of the Community Unitarian Universalist Church in Plano, Texas, asks, in reference to the principles of Unitarian-Universalism: "How can we affirm and respect people whose self-selected goals are to destroy human life? From where do we garner the strength to search for the worth and dignity of those who committed such atrocities?" An answer can be phrased as follows; we respect an inherent dignity and worth because of what a person deserves to be, not what they have become. We affirm and respect because we seek to understand, and ask ourselves whether we would choose any differently if we were in their situation, and if so, whether knowledge of those other choices could not also be made available. It may not be a particular popular idea to try to understand terrorists, or to extend the rights of freedom and democracy, or economic welfare, that we enjoy. But the horrendous crimes of totalitarianism and authoritarianism have been studied as well, to work out how murderous ideologies gain popularity. The motivation remains the same - so we may say the same about terrorism: Never Again!