Missiles: futile treatment for terrorism

August 28, 1998|By Louis Cantori

TERRORISM IS NOT a disease, it is a symptom. The real illness is a political one, and the United States' decision to retaliate against this spreading germ through the use of missiles is akin to using a bomb against a virus. At best, you might wipe out a few of those carrying the sickness. At worst, you risk spreading the disease further, infecting more people than if the virus had been allowed to follow its own course.

A diplomatic approach will prove to be the only cure for the struggles in the Middle East, which are the underlying causes of the recent terrorist attacks. Military responses are an ineffective inoculation against the spread of the political agendas that foster terrorism and serve only as a placebo, offering false hope and brief, artificial relief from the pain this situation is causing our world.

For many American policy-makers, this metaphor is too weak and its extension -- that of healing -- is too soft. It is the metaphor and mechanism of war that stir the most passion. The secretary of state has declared that terrorism is the "future war." Although one would hope that this declaration of war would be more successful than similar ones against poverty and drugs, it seems unlikely given the romantic, patriotic notion of "the battlefield."

Moreover, in the case of Osama bin Laden's privatized terrorism, the battlefield is merely a post office box address. Mr. bin Laden, alleged financier and mastermind behind the recent bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa and numerous other terrorist acts, is outraged at American policies that seek to overthrow Saddam Hussein, policies that have resulted, intentionally or not, in the starvation of children in Iraq. He is angry that the U.S. has abandoned the peace process, thus allowing the Israeli government to continue the expansion of Israeli settlements at the expense of Palestinians. He is incensed that the U.S. government does nothing to prevent the holy city of Jerusalem from being Judaicized in violation of the Oslo accords, and as a Saudi national, he is furious at the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil.

Mr. bin Laden lashed out violently against the physical embodiments of these policies -- our embassies and our people. We retaliated by destroying his purported buildings, killing his presumed employees. Based on the results of such tit-for-tat actions, as we have seen in Israel and Palestine, Americans are right to be afraid of future retaliations.

The U.S. policy of "dual containment" of Iran and Iraq has been criticized as unresponsive to democratic Arab allies. Seven years have passed since the Perisan Gulf war, and the hope of toppling Saddam Hussein through the systematic starvation and degradation of Iraq's population seems as likely as a coup against Fidel Castro. Some argue that the American abandonment of the Middle East peace process is punishing both sides of the conflict. However, the American "nonpolicy" is actually an invitation to the Israeli government to continue territorial expansion and to compel Palestinians to assist in the takeover by repressing any violent opposition on the part of its people.

These questionable policies breed resentment, anger and, eventually, terrorism. The Israelis are often admired for their prompt and forthright actions against terrorism: strike and counterstrike. The result in recent years has been an almost equal body count of Israelis and Palestinians killed in Lebanon, the occupied territories and inside Israel.

These dramatic actions, however, no matter how politically satisfying, are virtually without consequence in stopping or even slowing terrorism. If anything, the situation becomes epidemic, spreading from one person to the next as public opinion is alternately outraged and assuaged by the actions of the conflicting parties.

As the countdown continues toward a possible unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence, U.S. policy is operating a changing and deteriorating security environment. Conflicting parties have greater access to long-range armaments, and issues that were once inspired by religious belief have blended with feelings of nationalism, thus giving rise to a new agenda that is political in nature with religious overtones.

In the Middle East, it is this political expression of Islam that we are seeing and not Islam itself.

The only inoculation against the spread of the ill will and anger that spawn terrorism is diplomatic cooperation. It was diplomacy that allowed the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland to withstand the recent terrorist attacks in that region.

While the death of innocents in Sudan and Afghanistan has horrified Muslims around the world, supporters of U.S. policies are claiming victory against Mr. bin Laden. The only real outcome of the bombings in Sudan and Afghanistan has been the near-deification of Mr. bin Laden as the only man, from the point of view of many Middle Easterners, who has effectively carried the struggle against oppressive policies in the Middle East straight to the top.

Louis Cantori is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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