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Cause and Effect Terrorism Follies

By April 2, 2004 No Comments

By now, the Spanish reaction to the Madrid railway bombing and the Palestinian fury over the killing of Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin are old news. Even so, there is one point that begs for comment.

It is human nature to confuse cause and effect. James George Frazer’s classic study on myth, The Golden Bough, points out that many of our superstitions rest on the assumption that there is a deliberate purpose behind every event, and then wondering how one can turn cause and effect to one’s own advantage. Natural phenomenon such as lighting was held to be an instrument of divine wrath; or a community that had just seen their crops flooded might decide that this was a punishment for letting witches be concealed among them. Once the floodwaters ebbed, it would be time to burn some old women at the stake to make sure it never happened again. Likewise, one thinks of primitive societies that were said to pitch virgins into volcanoes to prevent eruptions (there is no evidence that any human society ever did such a thing, though at least three were known to pitch bound maidens into rivers).

In the past, when the Huns, then the Mongols and then the Turks started ravaging their ways into Europe, there were religious leaders who declared that the barbarian’s pillaging was God’s just and righteous punishment for our evil ways and lack of faith. So, plainly, if we all became more devout, the barbarians would leave us alone… (It is somehow reassuring to note that the modern liberal has his antecedents). Even nowadays one might still hear an opinion that a woman who got raped by a criminal might have ‘deserved’ it for dressing provocatively.

Cause and effect get confused all the time when dealing with terrorism.

Terrorists do what they do because of a combination of the internal psychological terrain of the terrorists themselves, and the influence of whatever ideology they adopted that allowed them to commit violence. Terrorists commit violence because they want to: Because the terrorists themselves are the wrathful, the sullen, and the flawed, looking for dramatic purpose and a heroic self-identity. What they actually believe doesn’t matter much except that it shapes the style and direction of the violence they employ.

Most terrorists and ideological bully boys don’t really care that much about the cause per se; a point amply demonstrated by the Nazis and the Communists in Germany before Hitler seized power. Much of the violence between the two groups was based on the fact that they were earnestly recruiting the same sort of people. Twelve years ago in Toronto, the Anarchists of Anti-Racist Action and the White Supremacists in the Heritage Front were similarly competing for disaffected street kids in the city.

Israel has suffered the murderous attentions of terrorist groups motivated by Neo Nazism, Militant nationalism, various brands of Marxism and Socialism, and by Islamic Fundamentalism. The United States has been plagued by an equal variety of terrorists. Evidently, what was important to the terrorist was the attack, rather than the cause used to justify it.

The inevitable conclusion must be that seeking a political answer to the terrorists’ internal psychological motivations is always a vain pursuit that will miss the problem entirely.

This spring, as Spain buried 202 dead commuters in Madrid, the opinion was that the attack was a deliberate attempt to turn the Spanish election and weaken their position as an American ally in the war on terror. This is untrue. For a start, it takes a while to plan and execute terrorist attacks and Spain is a parliamentary monarchy with an unfixed election cycle much like Canada or Britain. It would be very difficult to plan an attack as complex as the Madrid bombings to coincide with an unscheduled election. But Jihadists can read newspapers and those countries with regular election schedules can probably expect major attacks to coincide with them.

However, before the spectacular political fallout of the Madrid attack the real motivation for the outrage was quite simple: Spain is a prosperous and free Western country and, as Osama Bin Laden has mentioned in earlier writings and interviews, is ‘guilty’ of ridding itself of Muslim rule over 500 years ago. Every other excuse after that is just so much window dressing.

The Palestinian Jihadist group Hamas is spitting fury over the death of three of its leaders. Now, of course, Hamas and other Palestinian groups are vowing to revenge these deaths with even more attacks on Israel. Does this mean anything? Hamas already has a long history of going after Israeli targets whenever and wherever they can. They are going to get worse? How?

Ordinarily, terrorist groups know no limitations on their behavior other than what they choose to accept for themselves – in accordance with whatever ideology they adopted and within the constraints of the ways and means available to them. However, as limitations on their violence are self-selected, they can be changed anytime the terrorists care to do so.

If Hamas members start blowing up more Jewish cultural centres and synagogues overseas, they might use the death of Sheik Yassin and other Hamas leaders as an ‘excuse’ in another tedious self-justification for their outrages. However, even if these men were still alive and free, Hamas could well have undertaken the same new aggressive posture anyway, for any number of reasons. Instead, what is more likely right now is that the new leadership of the group will be too busy preventing their own martyrdoms to send out any children wrapped up in explosive vest packs.

One of the fundamental truths in fighting terrorism is that, invariably, it is the terrorist who has freedom of action (until finally cornered) and it is the terrorist who controls the initiative. These are the main advantages in his ‘asymmetrical’ war against whomever he is attacking. Trying to guess what might mollify him in the future is like burning witches or sacrificing virgins to volcanoes – a wasteful and useless exercise in futility.