Saturday, April 16, 2005

Responding to Terrorism 

Originally published in the Old Gold and Black, Wake Forest University, September 19, 2002. This article was the work of a committee of Caux Scholars, for which Macani Toungara was the principal author.

With the anniversary of the attacks of September 11 come and gone I want to reflect for a moment about the future. It is my belief that our response to that attack was not wholly appropriate, but the question then arises: what would have been appropriate? I believe that our response was short sighted, that it did not take into account the long run. We failed to look at the history behind us, and in so doing we were blind in our approach to the future. So, where do we go from here? It will one day be our responsibility to shape the globe. Following are my suggestions of how to deal with the problem of terrorism in the future. What we have done now is simply sliced the weed of terrorism off at the ground, but the root still thrives beneath. We need, in the future, to target the root and not just the weed.

I have envisioned a world where leaders will address mass grievances before they manifest themselves as acts of terror. When thousands of voices rise up at once against oppression or a perceived injustice, it is evidence that something is wrong. Our responsibility as leaders will be to handle those grievances in such a way as to be beneficial to both parties, before violence is ever considered. Violence is the last resort of desperate individuals and if we do our job correctly, people will not reach the point of desperation.

In this type of world, voices of dissent will not only have to be tolerated, but also heeded, and collaboration will have to be emphasized over domination. Listen to those who disagree with you, it may strengthen your argument, or it might even change your mind. However, neither of those is possible if voices of dissent are silenced. I hope that by focusing on the following root problems of today, future leaders can focus on preventing terror, rather than forcing societies to bear the burden of violence.

Future leaders must make conflict prevention in foreign and national policy a top priority. The war in Afghanistan has cost billions of dollars, including the cost of financing the reconstruction of communities destroyed. The earlier intervention of governments to promote and finance the development of good governance and democracy in Afghanistan may have resulted in a change similar to the impact of the Marshall Plan on Europe. Several organizations, such as Medecins sans Frontiers and the West African Network for Peace, already study areas of conflict and provide analysis of potential problems in conflict areas. The reallocation of resources towards understanding early warning signs and prevention of violent conflict saves lives, economies and societies from destruction.

When we are surrounded by the sounds of bombings and guns, both from and as a response to terror attacks, it is difficult to hear the actual “why” behind the trigger finger. Economic desperation leads to extremist behavior. The stability of the world thus rests upon the development of its poorest countries. Bretton Woods institutions are reviewing their traditional neo-liberal economic development models; however, this review should include greater efforts to curb the exploitation of developing economies and to provide creative opportunities for developing nations to acclimate to the international economy.

For the past year, we have tossed around terms that we do not fully understand. The term “terrorist” has been applied too broadly to denigrate a cross-section of dissident minority groups and organizations. Recently, governments around the world have begun to label internal dissidents as terrorists in order to gain greater support for military action against them. Governments are only addressing the immediate threat of violence by isolating and destroying dissident groups. In the long term, the failure to open the lines of communication will only lead to increased and prolonged violence.

State-sponsored political violence is a source of conflict that may plague future generations’ leaders and motivate violent reprisal and social unrest. Many leaders fail to acknowledge their governments’ state-sponsored political violence towards other nations and their own citizens, especially as it relates to limitations on civil liberties and institutionalized ethnocentrism and racism. The United States, as one example, has failed to take responsibility for the impact of US-backed “proxy-war” - the arming of rebel groups to destroy elected governments (particularly in Central and South America). Future leaders must acknowledge the existence of state sponsored political violence and actively work towards its elimination. In doing so, we target the sources of frustration and anger that fuel the violence of dissident groups and can therefore move towards a peaceful solution.

In order to decrease the threat of violence on a global scale, future leaders should consider strengthening international bodies. These bodies should have the capability to impose effective checks and balances to hold even the most powerful nations accountable for the global spillovers of their actions. Furthermore, a critical element also involves the UN Security Council’s reform, which should reflect the current regional, demographic, and economic state of the globe and should not consist purely of unilateral veto power play. The institutions in place now need not be eliminated, just reformed so that they can more effectively do the job for which they were created.

Moreover, nations must adopt accountable and representative institutions that abide by international tenets on democracy. Accommodation of and dialogue with dissenting parties is critical to the democratic process. We should view dissenting opinion as an opportunity to reevaluate the effectiveness of public policy. Additionally, we must work hard to avoid xenophobia, in part by encouraging the media to identify violations of civil rights within our societies. The media plays a critical role as it is often the first and only source of information the populace receives, and therefore bias present in the media is particularly damaging.
Though our current leaders have tried to eliminate the visible traces of the weed of terrorism, they have left us a garden full of menacing roots. I call on all young leaders, who may soon arrive in positions of political power, to think forward and push themselves to extract the root of terrorism. Young leaders need not be bound by the choices of their predecessors. If they nurture the seeds of change and uproot the seeds of destruction, they have the potential to build a vibrant and flourishing world free of terror. As the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. Let us not be afraid to take that one, small step now and to keep moving in a forward direction.


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