Terrorist mind game Yielding to terror risks feeding it, and so does ignoring the grievances that spawned it

March 10, 1996

This article recently appeared in The Economist magazine and was distributed by the New York Times Special Features.

THE BOMBS THAT mangled buses and bodies in Israel, and in London in recent weeks, are the latest in a long line of terrorist violence.

As well as their own local precedents, they follow a huge bomb in January in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, the devastation in Oklahoma City last year and the poison gas attack in Tokyo last March.

The bombs in Britain and Israel are particular because they have damaged two peace processes -- one barely begun, the other, in the Middle East, further advanced -- in which democratic governments have been negotiating with people who straddle the murky divide between politics and violence.

These bombs pose tricky questions. Does violence make such negotiation more urgent? Or does it disqualify the terrorist, and anyone associated with him, from the negotiating table?

The apparent position of democratic governments has been simple: We never bargain with terrorists. Simple in rhetoric, muddled in reality.

In 1986 America blamed, then bombed, Libya for helping terrorists abroad, but later tried to ransom American hostages by selling arms to Iran.

In France, the appeasement of terrorism became an art form as the government negotiated to free French hostages in Lebanon. Even Israel freed more than 700 Lebanese prisoners in 1985 in a not-publicly-acknowledged swap for 39 American hostages. And Britain admitted, before the IRA announced its cease-fire in 1994, that it had been conducting secret talks with the IRA, which it had sworn never to do.

The basic message, it turned out, was "we never, repeat, hardly ever, bargain with terrorists."

Popular opinion, too, is far from simple, for former terrorist groups have often later become respectable. The latest confusion-sowers are the African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

This has encouraged what might be called the relativist view of terror: that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter; that what really distinguishes terrorist groups from liberation movements is the outcome.

This is what presumably has been in the minds of Americans who have long raised money for the IRA and of American officials who have allowed Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, to enter America and to raise further money there even though (unlike the PLO's Yasser Arafat) he has not renounced violence.

Even if, however, you feel clear that you do not want to talk to men of violence, a further complication arises.

This is the emergence of apparent moderates who say they are willing to negotiate, on the promise of holding the bombers in check. That has been Mr. Arafat's stated position, and it may be Mr. Adams'.

The PLO has been arresting and imprisoning leaders of Hamas, the main Islamic fundamentalist group in Israel's occupied territories, while Hamas itself seems to be divided, with most members suggesting that their main goal is not the extermination of Israel but the assertion of Islamic values in a future Palestinian state.

Yet many Israelis believe that continuing with peace negotiations will just encourage more bombs.

In Northern Ireland the picture is muddier still: Mr. Adams, whose influence over the IRA is as unknown as his membership of it, goes to meetings accompanied by a convicted terrorist, Gerry Kelly, who is thought still to be on the IRA's main decision-making body. Should respectable governments talk to such a man?

No democratic government, with elections to win and problems to solve, can find these questions easy. The moral calculations are hazardous; the practical ones even more so.

A route map of sorts can, however, be drawn if you return to that basic, surely correct, democratic instinct: not to talk to terrorists.

But then ask: Why not?

Plainly, the first answer is that to do so encourages further violence. Yielding to terrorism risks feeding it.

Beyond that, however, the risk is that doing so transforms the government's objective from the examination of grievances towards the mere ending of violence. It establishes an unsustainable and unacceptable test of success: the cessation of killing.

The IRA bombs London; therefore the British government must have failed. Hamas bombs Jerusalem; therefore the Israeli government must be blamed (though whether for moving too fast or too slowly depends on who is doing the blaming).

In such thinking lies defeat, but also a terrible misconception.

An honest government must admit that terrorism often does expose a legitimate grievance. That is not always so -- in cases such as Oklahoma City or the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany in the 1970s terror may be used for no comprehensible rhyme or reason.

Terrorism sponsored by another state, as often during the Cold War or by Libya or Iran, is also in a different, now less common, category.

But often, alas, a grievance does exist, as it certainly did in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, and in Israel.

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