Should we do "what the terrorists want"? Should we refuse to do "what the terrorists want"?

The flaw in the notion that one displays "strength against fear" (the previous title of this node) by paying close attention to the demands of international terrorists and then doing the exact opposite is easy to see: it's an elementary exercise in game theory. I can hardly think that there is no terrorist mastermind capable of applying reverse psychology.

More generally, any strategy that relies on the sincerity of statements issued by known active terrorist organizations is highly suspect. The intentions of such groups can only reliably be divined by their actions, or by their internal communications, if we have any reliable intelligence. In the case of the Madrid train bombings, as in so many others, the only reliably determinable goal was maximum loss of life, injury and damage to property. (If you insist on talking about Hitler, his goal was clearly the annexation of as much territory as possible to Germany, the adverse consquences of which were obvious. The eventual declaration of war occurred because the benefits of avoiding war did not outweigh the disadvantages of continued German expansion. An earlier declaration of war might, or might not, have led to a better eventual outcome. What was the point of the "analogy" again?)

What is "appeasing the terrorists"? Who is "appeasing the terrorists"?

The only action that can legitimately be called "appeasement" of a terrorist group with no legitimate, coherent or credible political programme, is allowing them to carry on killing and destroying property. Any politician who thinks this is a good idea should of course be expelled with force from the arena of public debate. But I believe there is no such person in the body politic of the Western democracies. (Although some in Israel and the U.S.A. have come perilously close to expressing satisfaction with certain past terrorist acts.)

It is only a matter of common decency to grant that, although you might disagree with them on policy, your political opponents too strongly want to prevent future attacks. To paint the opposing party as wishing to "surrender" to terrorism, to claim that a vote for any party in a democracy is "a vote for the terrorists", is a vile smear, an attempt to stifle legitimate political debate, a poisoning of the wells.

The temptation to slime a politician or party as allied to or unwilling to fight terrorism is great, and among those who have succumbed to it are "Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values" (a Democratic party 527 associated with Dick Gephardt and John Kerry's campaigns) who put out a TV advertisement criticizing Howard Dean which began with a full screen close-up of Osama bin Laden's face and the words "Dangerous World," "Destroy Us," "Dangers Ahead"; George W. Bush, who approved an ad which implied that John Kerry has a "plan" to "weaken (the) fight against terrorists"; and any number of people in recent days who have called the victory of the Socialist party in the Spanish general election a "victory for the terrorists".


To go into the last point in a little more detail, the decisive factor may have been the public belief that the Partido Popular suppressed and manipulated information, renewing its reputation (among certain sections of the electorate) for arrogance and duplicity; while the intervention of the Socialist leader was instrumental in forcing the government to release evidence of Al Qaeda involvement. Here is the former Zapatero advisor Nicolas Checa:

And it was really not until Saturday evening (...) that the government decided to come forward with information as to the arrest of these five suspects linked to al-Qaida. As an example, it took a personal call from Prime Minister-Elect Zapatero to the interior minister, the Spanish homeland security secretary, informing him that the Socialist Party was aware of the arrest and that he was prepared to move forward with that information. (...) In the early afternoon after the arrests had already been made, the director of the Spanish CIA denied those reports and it was after that that the campaign manager for the Zapatero campaign had to come forward and inform public opinion (...).

So the election result could with equal accuracy be called a "victory for truth". In reality, we do not know the Spanish electorate's motivation for voting as they did. There was certainly no mass movement of the electorate away from the PP of Jose Maria Aznar as a result of the bombings or the war in Iraq: its vote was almost unchanged from the previous election. The Socialist victory was due to an enlarged turnout, believed to be mainly young voters.

The terrorists have power if we acknowledge that they have power

In a strong democracy, people will not vote, and politicians will not determine policy, under the influence of the public pronouncements of terrorists. They will act as if the terrorists had not spoken at all, and direct their actions towards preventing them from ever having the opportunity to speak again in the blaze of publicity that follows in the aftermath of a bloody attack.

To call a democratic election or a political policy, a capitulation to terrorism, is actually to devalue democracy. If there is one undisputable motive to terrorism, it is the exercise of power: the idea that the terrorists have the power to subvert democracies. Distressingly, some commentators have reinforced this idea by saying that the terrorists succeeded in changing the outcome of the Spanish election. I believe we ought to resist it and say that Spain succeeded in democratically electing a government.

If I may be allowed to speculate a little on the future plans of international terrorists, I don't believe either that the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq can prevent or dissuade future attacks within Europe, or that a decision to keep the troops in will prevent or dissuade future attacks. I think it is very likely that further attacks will be planned and put into action, whatever Mr. Zapatero chooses to do with Spain's forces. I think trying to appear weak and inoffensive, and trying to appear strong and aggressive, are both equally useless as anti-terror "strategies".

The question of what policy will actually reduce the ability of terrorism to harm society is a hard and complex one, where it is entirely legitimate to question your opponent's views and argue for the superiority of your own. Precisely because it is so important, it is vital that the debate be conducted in good faith and without smears, misrepresentations, hysteria or appeals to fear.

As an exercise, one could debate whether the U.S. was right to withdraw all military forces from Saudi Arabia in 2003: the presence of the US military had been one of Bin Laden's chief stated reasons for attacking America, and their withdrawal was a stated objective of Al Qaeda.

For a final warning against placing any trust in the significance of supposed Al Qaeda (or other international terrorist) statements, one might note that part of the communication from the "Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades" shortly after the Spanish election result consisted of a statement of "support" for President Bush in his reelection campaign:

"Kerry will kill our nation while it sleeps because he and the Democrats have the cunning to embellish blasphemy and present it to the Arab and Muslim nation as civilization.

Because of this we desire you (Bush) to be elected."

If you've read carefully, you'll deduce that this is not a reason to support John Kerry either. Actually, the terrorists want you to vote for Ralph Nader--so Libertarian Harry Browne will be your best choice! (Actually, machfive points out that the little-known Gary Nolan is the Libertarians' probable choice this year. Evidently their publicity machine has yet to gear up.) (by the improbably-named Opheera McDoom)

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