Where will it all end? When will it stop? Our political leaders speak of terrorism as if it were a scourge, a plague or an epidemic. They talk about what must be done to "stop the spread" as if terrorism were a kind of political AIDS. The depressing answer is that it won't stop.
Developments over the past several years suggest that terrorism, like poverty, prejudice and crime, is becoming another of society's chronic afflictions. More and more, the use of terrorist tactics by groups and governments is being institutionalized and tolerated, and to a certain degree, even legitimized as a means of political expression--an accepted mode of conflict among nations. And we may be able to do nothing about it. Why not?
There are several reasons: the sheer persistence of terrorism despite efforts by governments to crush it; the demonstrated utility of terrorist tactics by national governments; the concurrent tendency in other states to tolerate, even appease, state sponsors of terrorism; the continuing wrangles over definition; the tendency toward vigilante responses that are indistinguishable from, or border on, terrorism itself--and, perhaps the most insidious development of all, a growing banality of the whole phenomenon.
Governments have become tougher and more proficient at combatting terrorists. Some groups, like Italy's Red Brigades, have been virtually destroyed.
Yet the volume of terrorist activity worldwide has not diminished. Since the late 1970s, the number of terrorist incidents resulting in fatalities has increased each year. A more alarming trend in the 1980s is the growing number of large-scale, indiscriminate attacks--car bombs, bombings in public places like airport terminals, bombs planted aboard trains--all calculated to kill in quantity.
We once relied on terrorists' self-imposed constraints to limit violence. Most terrorists used the minimum force necessary to achieve their goals. They regarded indiscriminate violence as politically counterproductive. In the epoch of the car bomb, constraints seem to be eroding.
This is not to say that terrorists have been ultimately successful. They have attracted publicity, caused alarm, provoked international crises; they have compelled governments to divert vast resources to protection against attacks. But they have not translated these achievements into concrete political gains; in that sense, terrorism has failed.
Why, then, do they persist? In part because, cut off from normal contacts, talking only to each other, they come to believe their own propaganda: Government authority is in its death throes, the revolution is about to begin, victory is inevitable and imminent.
Part of the terrorists' ability to survive may lie in the infrastructure that has grown up to support them. Increased cooperation among terrorists makes them more difficult to combat. There is today a semipermanent subculture of terrorism. Individual terrorists can be arrested, terrorist groups can be "defeated," but governments find it extremely difficult to identify and destroy the resilient web of personal relationships, clandestine contacts, alliances with other groups, suppliers of material and services that sustain the terrorist underground.
In the process of long-term survival, some terrorist groups are changing their character. It costs money to maintain a terrorist group, and those who do not receive support from foreign patrons must get money through bank robberies, ransom kidnapings, extortion, smuggling or participation in the narcotics traffic. Gradually, the activities become ends in themselves and terrorist groups begin to resemble ordinary criminal organizations with a thin political veneer.
In an essay written more than 10 years ago, I suggested that "terrorism, though now rejected as a legitimate mode of warfare by most conventional military establishments, could become an accepted form of warfare in the future." It was a concern, not an endorsement.
A growing number of governments are now using terrorist tactics themselves or employing terrorist groups as a mode of surrogate warfare. These governments see in terrorism a useful capability, a "weapons system," a cheap means of waging war against another nation. Growing state sponsorship of terrorism puts more resources in the hands of the terrorists, including money and sophisticated munitions. It also provides a sanctuary where they can retreat, recuperate and rearm.
State-sponsored terrorism is far more difficult to suppress than independent groups. Going after it may require going after the state sponsor rather than the terrorists themselves. But it is usually difficult to prove connections between terrorist perpetrator and sponsor.