Sunday, January 14, 2007

Political Strategies of Terrorists

A story in today's New York Times suggests that the Pentagon and CIA are looking into Americans' bank records in terrorism-related investigations (read about it here to avoid NYT logon). Privacy-related concerns will have many balking. The begs the question of how to crack down on would-be terrorists without turning citizens against their own government.

As much as I hate waiting for the future, I enjoy looking back at the past. I like the twists and turns my life has taken.

In the early 1990s, I was a political science major. At New Mexico State, they called it government ... like Harvard. I ended up changing my major, but I completed the coursework for a minor in government (however, due to an oversight apparently on my part that was discovered years after graduation, I took a required class pass/fail and did not officially "get" the minor).

One of the first courses I took at NMSU was introduction to political science (GOVT 110G) with Neil Harvey, Ph.D.

Harvey's research focus, in part, involves Chiapas, Mexico, and we talked a lot about Latin America in that class.

Although it was fall 1994, I think a lot about that class these days. One of the things that we talked about in that class was the goals of terrorism. It seemed largely tangential at the time, but I learned something that I remember these many years later.

Most Americans, it seems, feel that the true goal of terrorism is evil. Among other things, this is illogical. Many evil people fill the history books, but few of them achieved evil for evil's sake.

Consider the Sept. 11th attacks on World Trade Center, Pentagon, and flight 93. Although the means could not be more deplorable, the goals are legitimate political goals. The means are evil. But the end is not evil. Instead terrorism is a political weapon of the weak.

I am a pack rat, and I save things. I still have all my notes from my undergraduate career. Thinking through 12+ years of haze, I looked up my notes on terrorism from Prof. Harvey.

On Nov. 14, 1994, I wrote in my notes, "What are the tactics? Small groups with few resources: bombing train terminals, kidnapping, blowing up airlines. Puts fear into people and makes the government more repressive. Single, young, better educated males. Misfits. Can't see the different between the good and the bad within the system. Fanaticism based on hatred. The cause may not be so relevant. Democracies are particularly susceptible to terrorism."

The part that stuck with me is in the middle. Terrorism makes the government more repressive. In a free and open society such as the United States, it is easy to move around. This freedom makes us susceptible to terrorism. When a major terrorist attack occurs, fear spreads. More importantly, however, the government almost inevitably begins to constrict.

Patriot Act.


Sound familiar?

Terrorism puts an administration in an extremely unenviable position. With no restrictions, it is difficult to curtail vulnerability to terrorism. Suffer a repeat attack, and public opinion is sure to turn against the administration.

Hence the fact that most governments will begin to become more repressive. As the fear from an eminent terrorist attack subsides, citizens begin to chafe at the new restrictions. Their ire drifts away from the terrorism and toward their own government.

In a small Latin American country, this discontent might be sufficient to lead to an overthrow of the state. This is virtually impossible within the United States; however, recent mid-term elections suggest that a vote-based coup may be under way.

Consider that a recent news release from the Gallup organization reported, "But in the latest poll, his approval rating on terrorism (44%) is roughly the same as his 45% rating on the economy. The 44% terrorism approval rating is one of the worst of his presidency ..."

As a communications and cognitive science scholar, I will leave it to others to debate the policies. My over-arching question is that if even I can remember this terrorism-repression-discontent link, why was that not a major talking point from Washington?

Instead of pushing the Patriot Act (for example) as a necessary evil, it seems to me that a more effective communication strategy would have been to come out saying, "One of the goals of terrorists is to drive a wedge between a government and its people over security policies. We are going to make our country safer, but we are going to balance safety with the civil liberties of our citizens."

I understand that hindsight is 20/20, but it seems with all of the hundreds of advisors in Washington, someone could have done a better job.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting post. You should read Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance.


2:06 PM  
Blogger Samuel D. Bradley said...

Too many books. Too little time.

9:18 PM  

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