Opinions - 28.06.2017 - 00:00 

The terror of London – and why war is the wrong answer.

Terrorism only derives power from the wrong reaction of those who are its victims, writes Martin Booms, HSG faculty member and Professor of Business Ethics at the Steinbeis University Berlin. He advocates a reinforcement of our own values and cohesion in society. Only a conception of security that is based on freedom can be successful against terrorism.

29 June 2017. Terror appears to have definitely arrived in the western world – the latest series of attacks in London is sad confirmation of this. The development is doubtless threatening – which makes it so much more important to deal with it appropriately. Political reactions always regress to a slogan that emerged after the 9/11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center: the "war against terror". Is this reaction reasonable, though? The answer to this is an unequivocal no. On the contrary: those who declare war on terrorists do them the greatest possible service.

War vs terrorism

But a word of caution: this does not mean that the argument can be reversed to champion radical pacifism, for in individual cases it may be perfectly legitimate, indeed even necessary, to crack down on terrorists by means of violence, as is happening against the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" at present. However, fighting terrorism with military might or waging war are two completely different things. This becomes comprehensible if we establish what the terms war and terrorism actually mean.

As the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz knew, war is a form of engagement between two parties at eye level: a conflict between basically equal opponents on shared ground. Thus those who declare war on terrorists upgrade them as a conflict party which has basically been recognised and thus legitimised. However, it is precisely this claim to be a recognised opponent on a "proper war footing" that makes terrorism so attractive to its supporters. As a matter of fact, terrorists are not warriors but criminals who, as such, are not entitled to political recognition.

Terrorism turns its victims into accomplices

Finally, we have to be clear about the fact that terrorism per se is weak – which is precisely why it can only launch selective attacks of the ambush type. The terrorist’s power is not based on the individual acts of violence that he perpetrates – no matter how terrible they may be for those concerned in individual cases. Terrorism only gains strength from the wrong reaction of those who are its victims.

This is the perfidious aspect of terrorism: it transforms its victims into accomplices, indeed into organs of enforcement of its own intention. It encourages the society concerned to corrupt its own values of freedom – values which the terrorists themselves would never be able to shake. If we refuse to display this reaction, terrorism is futile.

Calls for a restriction of civil liberties or even human rights – as recently made by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, in view of the attacks in London – are therefore the wrong way just as the war on terror is: it benefits terrorism more than harming it. What is required instead is a new way of looking at security policy which focuses on the inside: on the reinforcement of the cornerstones of our own values and on cohesion in society. Terrorism can only be successful if its poison is able to penetrate the cracks in a liberal culture. Remedying or preventing these cracks is thus the first and most important requirement of a properly understood security policy. The core of sustainable security is therefore to be found in integration, social and education policy, whereas a specific defence against danger by means of police and, in an emergency, military resources will constitute its outside precondition, which may be necessary but is not adequate at all.

If we succeed in using as a yardstick such a conception of security – which will survive precisely not against but through freedom – then terrorism will not stand a chance.

Foto: Photocase / masone

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