Since Sept. 11th, studies of terrorism have become terribly – in the most literal sense of that word – relevant. Hence the hurried reissue of Walter Laqueur’s 1977 A History of Terrorism. By and large, Laqueur’s main conclusions are even more valid now than in the 1970s. But the myths that Laqueur’s book attempts to dismantle are still as strong as ever and in the same quarters (the media and academia), proof of the durability of political correctness.
When originally conceived, Laqueur’s book was a corrective to the romantic revolutionary mongering of the New Left. Using the tools of a sociologist – definitions and patterns – Laqueur advanced the following conclusions: Terrorists are not spawned by unjust social conditions or government repression (otherwise, we would have all been terrorists in the Clinton years), but from conditions of relative freedom; terrorists are not idealists, but show great political naivete, are frequently manipulated by foreign powers, and have no moral scruples or essential humanism; they are not have- nots, but frequently command large expense accounts and. safe-house mansions all over the world; and finally, they are neither left nor right, but merely adopt the slogans that will best justify their actions.
Much of what Laqueur concludes is valid. Terrorists do adopt whatever ideology will provide cover for their violence or, as libertarians have been saying for years, the far right and the far left meet in a circle, mainly because both advocate violence for ostensibly political purposes, which in reality means the pursuit of power by any means. History has proven this model correct: Hitler admired Lenin, Stalin admired Hitler, and Castro is a Mussolini fan. Terrorists are politically naive. Even a cursory reading of their statements makes this apparent: The world is run by five Jews in
Amsterdam; the CIA created AIDS in a South Dakota lab; George Bush Sr., charter member of the Freemasons, practices witchcraft (“Not now, Barbara, I’m·boiling.a frog”); and the Israelis shoot poison gas at Palestinian children. Superpowers do manipulate terrorists for their own ends. China and Cuba, both communist nations, frequently fund Islamic fundamentalist groups, which, taken to our shores, is like having Al Sharpton fund the Minutemen. Terrorists are not have-nots,
Terrorists adopt whatever ideology will provide cover for their violence.
but we are still afflicted with this Weathermen-era defense mechanism. Clinton aide Strobe Talbot recently classified Osama bin Laden, the spoiled brat of an oil-rich sheik, as a “have-not.”
The Roots of Terror
Laqueur is less satisfactory regarding one of the premises to his conclusions. Arguing that terrorism breaks out in democratic, not repressive societies, Laqueur points to the lack of terrorism in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union. But Laqueur overlooks the fact that these countries are evidence of terrorist success in that terrorists have captured the reigns of power. All the characteristics Laqueur attaches to terrorists – their lack of moral scruples, their resort to violence as a political tool, their shifts to left and right in order to pursue power – were present in the governments of the Nazis and communists. And those labeled “terrorists” by these governments had none of these characteristics; indeed, they were the democrats and their punishable actions – practicing free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, picketing – were the actions of civilized, nonviolent people. There are a number of reasons that might explain Laqueur’s overlooking this glaring fact, the most innocent being the scholar’s habit of missing the forest for the trees, the most sinister being his predilection for aligning himself with government rather than principles.
Of interest to libertarians is Laqueur’s reminder that terrorism can be defeated but the danger is the high price paid by liberal democratic governments if they eradicate their democratic principles in the process. Sept. 11 has forced some uneasy compromises from libertarians. Protection has assumed equal if not greater importance than civil liberties. And how libertarians deal with this dilemma is of extreme importance. Most of his academic colleagues are all too· eager to throw away civil liberties in extreme periods: Alan Dershowitz has recently supported police torture of suspects; in a more peaceful time, a professor once told me that she was willing to give up the Second Amendment in exchange for the government’s protecting her from crime. Laqueur is to be commended for remembering that we need to have something worth protecting. Now that he has again exposed the chimera of politically correct definitions of terrorists, it is up to libertarians to create ways to protect the country from them and still retain the principles that make us different from the bin Ladens of the world.