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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 24, 1986, Page 3


On Terrorism and its Causes

By Moorhead Kennedy

(Moorhead Kennedy, acting economic counselor when the US Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979, is executive director of The Council for International Understanding in New York and author of the forthcoming The Ayatollah in the Cathedral: Reflections of a Hostage. This article was originally prepared for the Hartford Courant and is reprinted here with their permission)

The indiscriminate massacre of innocent holiday travelers at two European airports by Palestinian terrorists [last December] has deepened our sense of vulnerability and turned many comfortable assumptions about our country upside down.

Our technological superiority, a primary source of our nation's strength and standard of living, today is providing terrorism with its tools and primary targets. The United States is responsible, more than any other nation, for the air age, and for the ease and rapidity of international travel, which groups potential victims and hostages and sets them up for terrorist action. We have produced a highly articulated society, in which electricity and gas are brought to large urban centers by conduits easy to demolish. Middle Eastern terrorism, which is growing in scopeand technical sophistication, may well spread to our shores.

As it does, our urban centers themselves will become potential hostages. We cannot post guards at every pylon of every power grid, or on every gas pipeline, or, for that matter, in every subway tunnel. We cannot body search every passenger on every domestic flight. All these measures would entail constraints on our personal liberties that would be intolerable, not to mention costs that would be prohibitive.

The communications revolution sparked by Americans now delivers terrorism's message, as it has of the forces arrayed against us and against Israel for the past 30 years. The transistor radio in the 1950s carried Gamal Abdul Nasser's inflammatory words to virtually every Arab between Morocco and the Persian Gulf. In Paris, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini taped his sermons so that, via the direct dial telephone system provided to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi by AT&T and GTE, his call to revolution could be relayed to every mosque and broadcast to the faithful throughout Iran. "Don't ever forget," one of our Iranian guards reminded us hostages in January 1980, not long into our captivity, "we're on prime time." Via CBS, ABC and NBC, our student captors managed to make psychological hostages out of a whole nation. Today, through these same media and their coverage of the carnage that terrorists can create, Palestinians can compel the American people to pay attention to their cause as we never would absent such acts.

With this in mind, some have argued that media coverage of terrorist acts should be restricted, either by government or by the networks themselves, in the hope that, deprived of their theater, terrorists will produce no more plays. That is rather like turning back one's watch an hour in the hope that it will cause the sun to rise an hour earlier.

Middle Eastern terrorists know well that in a free society events of significance have to be brought to public attention. If terrorist acts of present magnitude are deliberately not covered, the next time Middle East terrorists will simply increase the quantity ofhorror to the level that compels media coverage. If the La Guardia terminal of the Eastern Air Lines shuttle were blown to smithereens at five one afternoon, could mention not be made of this in the press and on television?

The Philosophy of The Deed

The proposal to restrict media coverage displays a naive and superficial appreciation of what motivates the terrorists to perpetrate such acts. Publicity for a cause is only part of the motivation. The rest, to draw on old fashioned anarchist language, includes "The Deed" a semi mystical, almost ritualistic, often self sacrificial concept of their act. Through it, devotees consecrate themselves to their cause. In the case of Moslems, whose faith ensures to martyrs access to a more blessed hereafter, the motive is especially strong. In the case of the Palestinians, "The Deed" is an assertion through risk and self sacrifice of the national identity, the existence of which the principal target countries, the United States and Israel, have denied. "The Deed" serves to bond, to pull adherents together and solidify support. Thus it serves to counter the disunity that in large measure cost the Palestinians their homeland in 1947 and 1948 and which continues to plague them today.

Mixed with these motives is usually an element of retribution for a perceived injustice, arising from a double standard. Our Iranian captors told us repeatedly that they were "paying America back for its great crimes." They were especially resentful of the contrast between the Carter Administration's proclamation of human rights as the centerpiece of its foreign policy, and its support of the Shah, whose regime was declared by Amnesty International to be at the top of its list of human right abusers. We condemn terrorism because of the indiscriminate manner in which it takes innocent human life. One of the Lebanese Shiites who hijacked TWA Flight 847 in June 1985 ran up the aisle of the aircraft shouting "New Jersey," a point not immediately understood by the passengers. Later, he told one of them that his wife and daughter had been killed in the indiscriminate shelling of Lebanese villages by the USS New Jersey in September 1983.

One can argue that the indiscriminate killing of innocent people by a state in pursuit of its national interests, while regrettable, is at least tolerable, whereas indiscriminate killing by irregular groups, like the Palestinians in pursuit of their national interest, is not. But that, surely, is a "Catch 22" argument to Palestinians who want nothing more than a state of their own, The injustice they complain of is the denial to them by the world community, led by the United States, of the rights of self determination accorded to Israel and to other formerly colonized peoples, along with recognized boundaries, a flag and the rest of the substance and forms of nationhood.

If the United States has become a principal target of Middle Eastern terrorism, it is not merely because of its alliance with Israel. That alliance by itself would not explain the reactions of my Iranian captors, so very parallel with those of the Palestinians. For Middle Eastern terrorists of all descriptions, we Americans, who traditionally have upheld high standards of freedom, self determination and human rights, in our actual conduct have proved a great disappointment. Disillusionment turns to bitterness, and bitterness to hatred, and hatred to revenge.

When Victim Becomes Victimizer

Worst of all, those who feel that they have been victimized in turn feel justified in doing to others what was done to them. The terrorist's callous disregard for human life owes much to victimization. The original postwar terrorist, Menachem Begin, who perpetrated the massacre of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin in April 1948, had, of all present day Israeli leaders, the most direct experience of the Holocaust. (He was in Europe during most of World War II.) If we Americans are to be of any avail in breaking the cycle of Middle Eastern violence, to which American citizens are beginning to fall victim, then we must learn to understand the feelings both of a Menachem Begin and a Yassir Arafat.

Yet, for a nation that has contributed so much both to the sophisticated technology on which Middle Eastern terrorism depends and to the political circumstances which keep it alive, we Americans still have a lot to learn about terrorism. Our confusion shines forth in such documents as U.S. Senate Resolution 186 of July 11, 1985, introduced by Sen Alphonse M. D'Amato of New York, which calls for a treaty to "prevent and respond to terrorism." Alongside some very useful provisions, including more effective international coordination of intelligence operations, and uniform laws on asylum and extradition, the treaty would "create an internationally accepted definition of terrorism."

In December 1984, I participated in a conference in England on the subject of terrorism. Among a blue ribbon international group, including senior officials from Scotland Yard, the FBI, politicians, luminaries from the media and academic experts, I was the token hostage. We wasted a whole morning unsuccessfully trying to hammer out an acceptable definition of terrorism, only to take refuge in Lord Clement Attlee's "An elephant is hard to define, but if one comes into the room, you know damn well what it is."

Perhaps a better definition of terrorism would be: "political action by violent means of which we happen to disapprove." Those whose ends and means we do approve are excused because they are "freedom fighters." I am reminded in this of World War II, in which German U boats were "bad" because they "attacked unarmed merchant ships," whereas U.S. submarines were “good" because they "swept the sea of Jap shipping."

American judges repeatedly have turned down British requests for the extradition of gunmen from the IRA, whose terrorist actions have been no less noxious than those perpetrated by Middle Easterners. Our judges rely on a clause in the extradition treaty exempting from extradition crimes such as murder if they can be classified as "political offenses." Such a treaty, along with the U.S. Constitution, is the highest law of the land. In effect, it says that we protect all murderers, arsonists and burglars, provided that their motives are those of politics, rather than of rage, greed or lust. Criminal action, justified by political motive, is one definition of terrorism.

A political offenses clause would cover Abu Nidal, and others responsible for the recent airport massacres, terrorists whom the Reagan Administration would like to bring to justice. It would also cover the Nicaraguan contras, freedom fighters to whose support the Reagan Administration is committed. The distinction becomes which of our national interests are served by which irregular groups and which groups work against our national interest.

A Guide For the Perplexed

Rather than wallow around in the definitional bog any longer, I would like instead to offer a three point approach to Middle Eastern terrorism that may help the reader to make some sense out of it:

Moral Outrage. Of course, we get angry when our fellow Americans are killed or taken hostage. We should. But moral outrage at the means that we have used ourselves, or supported or tolerated when used by others, only makes us look hypocritical. It clouds the sharpness of our vision and renders us less effective when we try to deal with the problem.

War, Crime and Self Defense. Middle Eastern terrorists are at war with us and our allies. We must therefore defend ourselves, pursuing terrorists whose activities threaten our national interests, the lives and freedom of our citizenry, the security of our allies or world order. We must seek punishment for terrorist acts in accordance with the norms of criminal law, or in exceptional cases, by extra judicial means, especially when these are adequately deniable. We should avoid the natural temptation, implicit in the D'Amato resolution, of making terrorism itself a crime. The conceptual and definitional morass that will open up has been pointed out. Moreover, if you give practitioners of terrorism a legal status apart from that of common criminals, you only dignify terrorism and furnish justification for murder, arson or any other crime.

In particular, we cannot be seen to be yielding to unacceptable terrorist demands, such as the release of the four Americans still held by Lebanese Shiites, in exchange for the release of Shiite terrorists who blew up the French and American embassies in Kuwait in 1983 and who subsequently were lawfully tried and convicted by the Kuwaiti government. I personally have experienced the despair that our captive compatriots must be feeling, but the U.S. government cannot undermine the efforts of other governments to protect our embassies and to otherwise enforce the rules that nations live by.

The Larger View. We also should not deceive ourselves that controlling damage while maintaining some shreds of legality in an increasingly anarchic world will afford more than momentary and symptomatic relief. We may bring quite a few Middle Eastern terrorists to justice. Others will step up to take their place. Hijacking the hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in no way deterred other terrorist episodes. We must face the reality that no amount of military strength, no operations however brilliantly conducted, can deter the spread of terrorism to our shores, not only by Palestinians but by others in the Third World prepared to emulate the Palestinians.

What, then, can we do? Israel's future security, as well as our own, demand that we both extend to the Palestinian people, through their representatives in the PLO, the recognition that Israel demands for itself and that we guarantee the peace process. This is not caving in before terrorism but undercutting and eliminating the forces that give rise to it. In a larger sense, it means real and overdue dialogue with the Third World.