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Bad News for Terrorists?

With U.S. and Russian opposition, how can terrorists be winning?

November 11, 2002

With U.S. and Russian opposition, how can terrorists be winning?

If you want to hear some reassuring news, here it is: The war on terrorism is really a one-way bet. No political movement in history prevailed because it used terrorist means.

On the contrary, even the on again-off again peace process in Northern Ireland — in which former terrorists play a prominent role — has been delayed, not helped, by terrorist acts. These terrorists include extremist Catholic and Protestant groups.

It would seem that now, especially, terrorists around the world would be on the run. Washington assembled a broad coalition to fight terror in the aftermath of September 11, which includes even some of the rogue states known to harbor terrorist groups.

Up until now, Russia under Vladimir Putin — although an early supporter of the Bush Administration's war on terror — has been a fairly lukewarm one.

But that changed after Chechen commandos took over 800 hostages at a theater in Moscow. That action had all of Russia under the gun for three days.

No wonder Mr. Putin appears to be ready now to throw his country's still-considerable military and intelligence resources into the war on terror.

But the intensity of the battle might just undermine those very superpowers. How?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Italy was battling a large-scale leftist terrorist insurgency. The Red Brigades, the largest and the best-known terrorist group, did not put forward any demands.

Instead, its members kidnapped and murdered politicians, judges and policemen. In essence, they waged a nasty guerilla war against the country's social institutions.

The purpose of the Red Brigades’ activities was to destabilize Italy's liberal democracy — and to make the functioning of its democratic institutions impossible.

Their plan was to provoke a shift to the right, culminating in the establishment of a right-wing dictatorship to deal with the terrorist threat. They believed that under an oppressive military regime, it would be easier to carry out a genuine socialist revolution.

It is hard to tell whether the strategy would have ever worked. Despite the terrorist threat, Italy remained a democracy. Eventually, it was the Red Brigades — not Italy — that collapsed during the 1990s.

But international terrorism so far has been more successful. True, individual demands put forward by hostage takers are rarely met. Russia, for example, never for a moment contemplated withdrawing its troops from Chechnya — as the terrorists at the theater demanded.

Similarly, despite suicide bombings, Palestinians are probably further than ever from achieving their goal of an independent state. And likewise, India's determination to hold on to its portion of Muslim Kashmir has not been shaken by interminable terrorist attacks by Muslim separatists.

However, while failing in their particular goals, terrorists are gradually succeeding on a broader scale.

Even as they are being defeated, they are forcing governments and civilized, democratic nations around the world to adopt brutal methods to combat them.

This problem has long bedeviled the Israelis. As they combat terrorist threats on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, their democratic government engages in regular assassinations of terror suspects. It also razes the homes of suicide bombers' families.

No matter how fully justified such measures might be, they threaten to brutalize Israel as much as the Palestinians — and to destroy the liberal ideals that the country inherited from its founders.

The Russian assault on Chechen hostage-takers is another example. What outraged public opinion in Russia and abroad was not the fact that so many lives were lost in the assault to free the hostages.

Rather, it was that the Russian government displayed almost as deep an indifference to the fate of innocent civilians as the terrorists themselves.

Well, Russia may not be a genuinely Western nation. And its post-communist history is only a little more than a decade long. But even the United States — in its war on terrorism — has, in part, been riding roughshod over both its own Constitution and the norms of international law in its zeal to battle terrorists.

The al Qaeda terrorist network may be an unprecedented threat. But the response by the Bush Administration, which is indefinitely detaining its own — and foreign — citizens without declaring them prisoners of war or charging them with any crime, is equally unprecedented in the history of the nation.

It seems that even the world's greatest democracy, in order to battle terrorism, suddenly finds itself taking the low road. That is troublesome.

Chipping away at civil liberty one small step at a time seems innocent enough. But it is precisely those liberties that make the United States so admired around the world — and so reviled by al Qaeda. Allowing the country's civil liberties to slip away is, in effect, the goal that al Qaeda would most like to achieve.