Incentives for Terror

Terrorism has been with the world for a long time, and yet it is only recently that Americans have taken an interest in the subject. Because we are relative newcomers to terrorist attacks on our soil, it is important that we evaluate our foreign policies to ascertain whether or not they are discouraging future attacks. Our military actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere have been a good start, but to eliminate this scourge we need to change the way we assess, and support or oppose, independence movements. So long as we continue to support rulers who sponsor terrorism, America will be vulnerable to it. This needs to change.

Terrorism knows no borders: Basques in Spain, Catholics in Northern Ireland, Tamils in Sri Lanka, Marxist drug dealers in Colombia and Islamic terrorists in numerous nations all commit crimes in the name of freedom . Yet some groups of people who have claims to self-determination no less legitimate than those pursued by terrorists eschew violence in their struggles for independence.Who are these people? Tibetans. Their resistance to Chinese occupation has been non-violent. They haven’t targeted civilians in Beijing or terrorized China in any way. Yet the United States refuses to make an issue of their subjugation in its talks with the Chinese government. The main issues of trade, Taiwan and nuclear weapons demand greater attention, so American criticism of the treatment of Tibetans is relegated to a mere cursory denunciation of policy. Consequently, the Tibetans continue to live and suffer under Chinese rule.

Contrast that with how the United States has treated the Palestinians under the leadership of Yassir Arafat. Leaving aside the merits of each peoples’ claim to self-determination, it is clear that both the Palestinian people generally and Mr. Arafat individually support or condone actions that are terrorist in nature. It is a terrorist act when Mr. Arafat signs checks to the families of successful suicide bombers. When the bombing of an Israeli primary school, resulting in the deaths of many children, causes jubilation among Palestinians, it clarifies the method by which they hope to achieve independence.

In short, there are three ways to seek statehood: non-violent resistance, violent resistance against occupying troops or terror attacks against civilians. It seems clear that the Palestinian leadership has recently chosen the third option. Yet the United States continues to support them by recognizing Mr. Arafat as the leader of the Palestinian people.

You may disagree with my definition of a terrorist act. Sophisticated Europeans sometimes say that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” I see a distinction. A terrorist act is a violent act, perpetrated by a group, that targets civilians with the aim of sewing fear, with minimal to nonexistent military benefit. George Washington was part of a separatist group that used violence, but he did not bomb cafs in London for psychological effect. Gandhi went one step further, avoiding violence entirely, instead campaigning for independence for his people. Both men were freedom fighters, yet neither was a terrorist. One’s man freedom fighter need not be a terrorist, and when dealing with a rational occupying force, terrorism may be counterproductive.

To its credit, the Bush administration has marginalized Mr. Arafat, providing some hope that an alternate leadership may emerge. However, the administration has not gone far enough in promoting movements that have foregone violence. It is productive to criticize and withdraw support from leaders who support terrorism, but without a commensurate re-allocation of resources to support non-violent movements, the incentive structure remains insufficiently changed.

I did not always support the Tibetan people. Before I knew anything about their plight I associated their cause with aging hippies and leftist Hollywood stars, people with whom I have very little in common. I figured there must be a good reason why the Chinese government had sent troops into Tibet, which the leftist activists were ignoring because it was inconvenient. When I had the opportunity to live in China over the past summer I asked a Chinese friend of mine about the Tibet situation. He could give me no answer, save that Tibet was a part of China so it had to be protected. I thought about pointing out that the reason why it is a part of China is because troops were sent to occupy it, but thought better of it. In the face of this occupation, commitment to non-violence has been particularly commendable.

Tibetans and Palestinians share compelling cases for statehood. But the former people have renounced violence, while the latter have actively encouraged it. Still, the United States ignores the troubles of Tibetans, while it recognizes an illegitimate Palestinian leader who supports terrorist activities. If we are to rid the world of terrorism, this incentive structure must change. President Bush’s pressure on Mr. Arafat is a good first step, but it must be coupled with support for those people who resist non-violently. We must oppose terrorist separatist groups everywhere. The safety of America depends on it.

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