Terrorism

Ian Gilmour

  • Britain’s Civil Wars: Counter-Insurgency in the 20th Century by Charles Townshend
    Faber, 220 pp, £14.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 571 13802 0
  • Terrorism and the Liberal State by Paul Wilkinson
    Macmillan, 322 pp, £25.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 333 39490 9
  • Terrorism: How the West can win edited by Benjamin Netanyahu
    Weidenfeld, 254 pp, £14.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 297 79025 0
  • Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism by Franklin Ford
    Harvard, 440 pp, £24.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 674 68635 7
  • The Financing of Terror by James Adams
    New English Library, 294 pp, £12.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 450 06086 1
  • They dare to speak out: People and institutions confront Israel’s lobby by Paul Findley
    Lawrence Hill (Connecticut), 362 pp, $16.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 88208 179 9

American foreign policy since 1945 has often been a force for good. Much of ‘the free world’ has felt the need of US protection, and some of it has been grateful. In recent times, however, many people have come to regard the United States as a power as dangerous as any other. In reaction to the quietism of the Carter era, American foreign policy has become ultra-activist in both word and deed. This has gone down well with the voters. American public opinion was intensely proud of the successful invasion of the tiny island of Grenada. There was similar exaltation when the resources of the Sixth Fleet proved capable of forcing down an unarmed Egyptian airliner. And after some of Colonel Gaddafi’s military installations were bombed, together with five embassies and the killing of 39 civilians, there was almost universal jubilation. There is a dangerous process whereby the Administration stirs up American public opinion, and public opinion in turn spurs on the Administration to further military adventures. US foreign policy usually needs a target, and American public opinion a crusade. With the USSR, Reagan’s ‘evil empire’, too powerful to take on directly, Gaddafi has succeeded Stalin, Mao, Nasser, Castro and Ho Chi Minh as the current hate figure. Terrorism is now the vogue evil, and anti-terrorism the fashionable crusade, and few stop to consider the wisdom of the course the US is pursuing.

In this country sensible discussion of terrorism is still possible. Charles Townshend, Paul Wilkinson and James Adams are immune to the hysteria that has afflicted Reagan’s America. Performing a miracle of compression, Mr Townshend tells the story of British ‘counter-insurgency’ in Ireland, the Middle East, India, Malaya, South Africa and Kenya. The author of the masterly Political Violence in Ireland knows all there is to know about the subject in Ireland, and he is equally well-informed about other countries. The British constitution, he points out, does not recognise insurgency. Britain has had no legal ‘third way’ between peace and war. Hence the tendency has been to treat insurgency as a temporary aberration, and not the result of a breakdown in normality demanding special legal measures. This reluctance to resort to martial law, added to the doctrine of minimum force and to the English preference for inaction, led to muddle and confusion but also, as a rule, to a relatively low level of repression. In 19th-century Ireland, ‘the sense of general resistance to British law’, Mr Townshend writes, often coalesced ‘into a sort of “rival government” ’, which defended security of tenure by violence and intimidation. A tenant who took over a farm from which the previous tenant had been evicted was violently punished. The groups who carried out the violence would now be called terrorists, but these ‘enforcers of the “unwritten law” were representatives, or in some sense agents, of the community’. And it was, Mr Townshend suggests, ‘the imposition of British law in Ireland which actually provoked disorder’.

Consistency may be an overrated virtue, but it is a pleasure to find ‘Bomber’ Harris, advocate of the mass bombing of German cities as the way to win the war, thinking during the Palestinian Arab revolt in 1936 that ‘one 250 lb or 500 lb bomb in each village that speaks out of turn’ would satisfactorily solve the problem. Montgomery, too, was consistent in his ideas. In 1938 he disagreed with the view of his military superiors and the Palestine Government that the Arab rebellion was a national campaign: the rebels were merely ‘professional bandits’ who would be crushed by heavy military pressure. Similarly, in 1947, Montgomery demanded all-out war against the Jewish terrorists and thought the population would co-operate in putting an end to terrorism. He was wrong both times. Mr Townshend’s accounts and judgments of all the counter-insurgencies are so clear, well-balanced and informative that the only possible cavil is his omission of the British response to EOKA in Cyprus. Perhaps that is the result of the 30-year rule, and it may be that Cyprus will be the subject of a separate study.

Of the cases discussed by him, only in Malaya and Kenya have competing nationalisms or religions not led to subsequent terrorist violence. But Cyprus and Palestine are the only exceptions allowed by Professor Wilkinson to the general rule that terrorism does not work. The new edition of Terrorism and the Liberal State is welcome and timely; it is by far the best general survey of the subject. Like Townshend, Paul Wilkinson is cool and objective. He takes a firm line against terrorism, which he defines as ‘the systematic use of murder and destruction, and the threat of murder and destruction, in order to terrorise individuals, groups, communities or governments into conceding to the terrorists’ political demands’. Terrorism is a crime against humanity. But in dealing with it there should, he believes, be a ‘two-front’ strategy. The fight against violence should be combined with a responsiveness to pressures for reform and a readiness to remove injustices. Terrorists’ ideology may be anything from neo-fascism and racism to neo-Marxism and anarchism, yet in confronting them liberal democracies must remain true to themselves and not adopt the methods of their opponents. Indiscriminate repression or retaliation ‘is totally incompatible with the liberal values of humanity, liberty and justice’.

Mr Wilkinson believes that much more can be done to combat terrorism, and he outlines some practical steps for governments to take: more international consultations and collaboration, a review of the Vienna Convention and improved procedures of extradition; the abandonment by governments of double standards in defining terrorists; the rectification of injustices. Over-reaction by governments, which is, after all, one of the aims of the terrorists themselves, is, he suggests, almost as bad as acquiescence, and he is scathing about what he calls ‘the bomb-first-and-think-afterwards school’. He notes that governments, too, may be guilty of terrorism.

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