November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
Terrorism occurs when a society reaches the highest level of dissatisfaction, when people can see no other way of bringing attention to their problems. There are always extremists, but there are only certain times when they become powerful and dangerous. In Russia in the nineteenth century, the monarchy consistently rejected all reform of any kind, allowing no constitution, no new laws, and no real markets, and this intransigence brought terrorism to the surface, especially after the assassination of Alexander II in 1887. There was terrorism by the leftist wing of Russian revolutionaries, the Social Revolutionary party, but there was also terrorism by the right, by people who wanted to scare the government in order to prevent any reform. The Russian government, which was highly authoritarian, had very good police, including secret police. They knew who most of the terrorists were, arrested most of them, executed dozens, and sent many to Siberia. But they still refused to reform their society, so the old terrorists were replaced by new ones. This failure to understand the nature of terrorism led to the Russian Revolution, in 1917. The society didn’t become democratic, but the terrorists did achieve their goal.
The Muslim religion is today in a period of reformation analogous to that of Christianity at the time of Martin Luther. In such a period, struggle between the different visions of a religion reaches a peak. But all the factions’ hatred for one another has been channeled against the United States as the one representative of the evilness of the world. We have to understand why. One reason is the conflict in the Middle East. Before the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, Arab extremists thought they could eliminate the state of Israel through war. They were defeated because the United States supported Israel. Now their hate for one another and Israel is redirected at the United States. The moderate part of Arab society understands that it cannot eliminate Israel as a state; nonetheless, there are extremists on both sides. In purely religious terms, there are Muslim fundamentalists and ultra-Orthodox Jews; politically, there are groups like Hezbollah and right-wing Israelis. Remember that it was not an Arab but an Israeli who killed Yitzhak Rabin.
The fight against extremism must be fought on three levels. The simplest is the police level: finding the terrorists specifically responsible for the events of September n. The second level is the police-plus-intelligence one: cracking the whole terrorist network. But all that will be useless if we don’t reach the third level: fighting to eliminate the extreme dissatisfaction within the society. Without that, the Arab world will see our actions as an attack against all of them and their religion, and if we catch Osama bin Laden, he will be replaced by someone else. What is essential is strong pressure on both sides, on Israelis as well as on Arabs, much like the pressure we exerted in the former Yugoslavia. Without that, all thoughts of stopping terrorism will be useless.