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All the wrong places

September 10, 2006|Rosa Brooks | Rosa Brooks, special counsel to the Open Society Institute and a law professor at Georgetown University, writes a weekly op-ed column for The Times.

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What Terrorists Want

Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat

Louise Richardson

Random House: 314 pp., $25.95

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Without Precedent

The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission

Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton

Alfred A. Knopf: 374 pp., $25.95

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Not a Suicide Pact

The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency

Richard A. Posner

Oxford University Press: 208 pp., $18.95

IN June 2005, Karl Rove came up with an effective new quip: Liberals, he declared, wanted to respond to terrorism by offering "therapy." In the White House advisor's view, "Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said: we will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said: we must understand our enemies." Today, it's hard to regard Rove's remark with anything but heartsick disgust. Despite the five years that have passed since the Sept. 11 attacks, we're nowhere near defeating our enemies -- in large part because we've never made the slightest effort to understand them.

Three new books highlight these failures. In "What Terrorists Want," Louise Richardson, executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, distills decades of research on terrorist movements around the globe and concludes that post-9/11 U.S. policy is based on deep misconceptions about how terrorists function. In "Without Precedent," Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairmen of the Sept. 11 commission, describe the Bush administration's relentless stonewalling of their efforts. And in "Not a Suicide Pact," federal appellate judge Richard A. Posner asks whether the terrorist threat justifies restrictions on civil rights.

Lucid and powerful, Richardson's book refutes the dangerous idea that there's no point in trying to understand terrorists. She offers rare firsthand knowledge of how terrorists think: Raised in Ireland in a Catholic republican family, she was 14 at the time of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, when British troops fired on Irish protesters. She recalls her girlhood diaries, "filled with invective against the latest example of Britain ... exploiting and brutalizing Ireland.... The extremism I imbibed came ... from the air around me."

As a university student, she watched many of her idealistic friends turn to the Irish Republican Army -- and although she did not join, she recognizes that those who did "were like me in almost every respect."

Drawing on interviews and primary source materials from dozens of such movements, Richardson reminds us that despite the awfulness of their acts, most terrorists are neither "insane" nor even unusually cruel. On the contrary, their acts are rationally calculated, and most terrorists believe themselves to be altruistic and noble, Davids fighting Goliaths.

This is a simple insight with profound implications for counter-terrorism policy. The rhetoric of "evil" prevents us from understanding how terrorists think and alienates those who may be torn between sympathy for the political aims of such movements and disapproval of terrorism as a tactic.

And these are precisely the people Richardson says we can least afford to alienate. Although terrorist movements thrive when they are based in what she calls "complicit communities," they fizzle out when they lose community support. Thus, understanding the grievances of those drawn to terrorism is crucial to designing effective policies to halt its spread.

By refusing to consider that terrorists may have any legitimate grievances, the Bush administration has radicalized moderates throughout the Islamic world and has wasted opportunities to deprive terrorists of the community support so critical to their survival. From the war in Iraq to the abuse of detainees, U.S. anti-terror tactics have backfired, driving more and more recruits into the arms of Al Qaeda.

At the same time, the rhetoric of the "war" on terror has played into Osama bin Laden's hands. Terrorists long for legitimacy: They want to be seen as courageous soldiers forced to adopt brutal tactics in the face of the enemy's superior resources. Here Richardson is blunt: "For the United States to declare war on a bunch of radical extremists living under the protection of impoverished Afghanistan is to elevate their stature in a way that they could not possibly hope to do themselves."

Despite her grim assessment of the U.S. record since Sept. 11, Richardson holds out hope for containing terrorism and halting the spread of Islamic militancy. She urges talks (even if covert) with terror groups, to better understand their motivations and aims. Similarly, she advocates policies and foreign aid designed to address the political grievances that spur terrorists -- not out of any "illusions that these actions would impress, much less mollify, the perpetrators of the violence" but because they are vital to depriving terrorists of the complicit communities that sustain them.

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