I came across the name of Conor Cruise O’Brien the other day, and as Google led to Google, I found a strangely prescient article of his from the Atlantic of 1986 on the subject of terrorism .
Take a look. Not everything in it has turned out to be correct, but much of it is spot on. It’s rare to go back that far in time and see such clear-sightedness on the subject.
O’Brien died less than a year ago. He was a fascinating amalgam, a man who defied easy Left vs. Right categorizations. I’ve not done a definitive study of his work, but from what little I’ve read of it (and from what I’ve read about him) he strikes me as having been an original thinker and iconoclast:
[O'Brien] retained a radical outlook, yet his career took a left to right wing path; he was strongly interested in the progress of South Africa, and in later years took a pro-Israel stance. He summarised his position as “I intend to administer a shock to the Irish psyche”.
O’Brien’s initial interest in, and understanding of, terrorism was in the context of the “troubles” and the IRA. But unlike some who were experts in that field, he didn’t imagine that all terrorists operated exactly in the same way. Here, for example, is O’Brien on the Palestine question, writing in 1986:
The clear implication [of a WaPo article O'Brien just quoted] is that negotiation between Israel and Jordan can dry up “a principal source of terrorism.” Now, nobody who has studied that political context at all, and is not blinded by wishful thinking, could possibly believe that. For the Arab terrorists—and most other Arabs—”the unresolved Palestinian question” and the existence of the State of Israel are one and the same thing. The terrorists could not possibly be appeased, or made to desist, by Jordan’s King Hussein’s getting back a slice of the West Bank, which is the very most that could come out of a negotiation between Jordan and Israel. The terrorists and their backers would denounce such a deal as treachery and seek to step up their attacks, directing these against Jordan as well as Israel.
What follows in O’Brien’s article is one of the best discussions of terrorists and their motives I’ve ever seen; I will present an excerpt in a moment. Note that what he observes about them is completely in line with Arafat’s much later behavior at Camp David in 2000.
But also keep in mind that O’Brien wrote this before the suicide bomber became commonplace; the terrorists O’Brien is describing here are the old-fashioned kind who lived to fight another day. In today’s world of the suicide bomber, his arguments about the power and prestige terrorists gain would refer mainly to the higher-ups, the ones who train and orchestrate the whole thing but never willingly die themselves—although it is also true that suicide bombers gain some power and prestige posthumously, and their families are often rewarded by their governments as well:
Terrorists have a grievance, which they share with members of a wider community: the division of Ireland, the division of Palestine, the inroads of secularism into Islam, or whatever. But they also have, from the moment they become terrorists, significant amounts of power, prestige, and access to wealth, and these constitute vested interests in the present, irrespective of the attainment or non-attainment of their declared long-term political objectives.
The sentimentalist thinks of the terrorist as driven to violence by grievance or oppression. It would be more realistic to think of the terrorist as hauling himself up, by means of the grievance or oppression and the violence it legitimizes, to relative power, prestige, and privilege in the community to which he belongs…
I don’t mean that the terrorist is necessarily, or even probably, insincere about the national (or religious or other collective) grievance or in his hatred toward those seen as responsible for the grievance. On the contrary, hatred is one of the things that keep him going, and the gratification of hatred is among the rewards of the terrorist. The terrorist is not just a goon, out for the loot. His political motivation is genuine. But there are other rewards in his way of life as well as the hazy reward of progress toward the political objective. The possession of a known capacity and willingness to kill confers authority and glamour in the here and now, even on rank-and-file members in the urban ghetto or in the village. On the leaders it confers national and even international authority and glamour, and independence from financial worries.
If we accept that the terrorist’s way of life procures him immediate rewards of that nature, and that he is probably not insensible to at least some of the rewards in question, it seems to follow that he will probably be reluctant to relinquish those rewards by voluntarily putting himself out of business.
The situation thus outlined has a bearing of a negative nature on the notion that there are “negotiated solutions” to the “problems” that “cause” terrorism.
First of all, a negotiated solution—being by definition an outcome that offers some satisfaction to both parties—will be inherently distasteful to terrorists and their admirers, accustomed as these are to regarding one of the parties (Britain, Israel, or another) as evil incarnate.
Second, to exploit that genuine distaste will be in the interests of the terrorists, in relation to the reward system discussed above. So pride and profit converge into a violent rejection of the “negotiated solution”—which therefore is not a solution to terrorism.
As I noted earlier, I don’t agree with everything O’Brien says in the article. For instance, he goes on to state that military action against terrorism only backfires, leading to more recruitment. I happen to think that is sometimes true and sometimes false; in the case of Iraq, for example, it was true for a while and then ultimately sparked an escalation in terrorism by Arabs (al Qaeda) against Arabs (much of the population of Iraq) that appears to have had a negative effect on recruitment.
Here’s one of O’Brien’s predictions that has certainly come to pass:
The numbers of the frustrated are constantly on the increase, and so is their awareness of the life-style of the better-off and the vulnerability of the better-off. Among the better-off themselves are bored young people looking for the kicks that violence can provide, and thus for causes that legitimize violence, of which there are no shortage. A wide variety of people feel starved for attention, and one surefire way of attracting instantaneous worldwide attention through television is to slaughter a considerable number of human beings, in a spectacular fashion, in the name of a cause.
Although the causes themselves hardly constitute the sole motivation of the terrorists—as terrorists claim they do—they are not irrelevant, either. The cause legitimizes the act of terror in the terrorist’s own eyes and in those of others belonging to his nation, faith, or culture. Certain cultures and subcultures, homes of frustrated causes, are destined breeding grounds for terrorism. The Islamic culture is the most notable example. That culture’s view of its own rightful position in the world is profoundly at variance with the actual order of the contemporary world. It Is God’s will that the House of Islam should triumph over the House of War (the non-Moslem world), and not just by spiritual means. “Islam Means Victory” is a slogan of the Iranian fundamentalists in the Gulf War. To strike a blow against the House of War is meritorious; consequently, there is widespread support for activities condemned in the West as terrorist. Israel is one main target for these activities, but the activities would not be likely to cease even if Israel came to an end. The Great Satan in the eyes of Ayatollah Khomeini—and of the millions for whom he speaks—is not Israel but the United States. The defeat of Israel would, in those eyes, be no more than a portent of the impending defeat of the Great Satan…
The wellsprings of terrorism are widespread and deep. The interaction between modern communications systems and archaic fanaticism (and other sources of resentment and ambition) is likely to continue to stimulate terrorist activity.
After describing the problem so well, what is O’Brien’s solution? He suggests that something must happen to cause those countries who oppose terrorism—and particular its Islamicist supremacist form—to coordinate their efforts against it. He knows this will be difficult, but he foresees it as a possibility in the following circumstances:
Can limited superpower consensus be attained for coordinated action against terrorism? I think it can, especially if international terrorist activity grows to the degree that it begins to pose a clear threat to international peace and stability—not just as these are perceived by one superpower but as perceived by both. There is a historical precedent, flawed—like all such precedents—but suggestive. This is the case of the Barbary pirates…
That’s a good description of what began to happen in the immediate post-9/11 period. Of course, we who have the hindsight of history know that such coordination, cooperation, and resolve was only a pale shadow of what it needed to be to get the job done, and that in any event it did not last. The future does not look any brighter in that respect. One hopes that it will not take another huge terrorist attack to change that picture.