Optimism, pessimism and terrorism


There are two noticeable divides, these days, in world affairs. One is between those who are essentially optimistic about politics, war, terrorism and economic development, and those who are pessimistic about all of those things. The other divide is between those who think that our big current threat, that of messianic Islamic terrorism, is essentially a reaction to various actions, sinful or otherwise, that have been done by the rich, developed countries, and those who think that these terrorists would be trying to kill, maim and destroy regardless of what we in the rich world have done.

Personally, I am in the optimistic camp about the way the world is developing and I am in the group that thinks the messianic Islamists would try to kill us regardless of what we have done or might do.

The first of these divides can be noticed in much journalistic commentary, at least in the western newspapers and magazines. The world economy is on an upswing, with welcome growth taking place in all the major economies, including even Japan, as well most strikingly as the world´s two biggest poor countries, India and China. Yet writers seem more keen to stress the negative signals: inequality between rich and poor, the budget deficit in America, over-investment in China, the lack of reform in Japan. It is as if there is a pervasive sense of guilt at the success of economic development and recovery, or a refusal to believe that it can really be true.

I noticed the second divide particularly on two recent overseas trips, one to Spain and the second to Australia. My visit to Spain came, entirely coincidentally, the day after the appalling terrorist attacks in Madrid. It soon became clear, both from the election result and the announcements by the new Socialist government, that many Spaniards felt that the terrorism was the result of Spain´s involvement in the American-led invasion of Iraq.

In Australia a few weeks after the visit to Spain, my visit coincided with announcements by the opposition leader, Mark Latham, that if he is elected in the polls due later this year then his new Labor government will bring home the Australian troops in Iraq as soon as possible. This proved controversial, and was also a little hard to understand, from an outsider´s point of view: Australia has only a little more than 300 soldiers in Iraq itself, and about 550 in the neighbouring countries or at sea nearby. That is smaller even than the Japanese Self-Defence Forces in Iraq. So why Mr Latham considers it necessary to pre-announce the withdrawal of such a small force is somewhat puzzling. No doubt he wanted to make a political gesture.

The common threads between Spain and Australia are anger and fear: anger at America´s intervention in Iraq and fear of terrorism. The second of those emotions is certainly understandable. Yet it is odd to react to it by withdrawing troops from Iraq: if that poor and devastated country is left without help and security then it is likely to fall into a civil war, and the danger of terrorism and instability will surely increase further.

The urge to withdraw reflects, however, the more general view about terrorism being a reaction to western, especially American, actions. This idea is dependent on guilt: the idea that western countries must have done some terrible wrongs in the Muslim world and is now paying the price for them. But it is also based in a very selfish, or self-centred view. For if terrorism is a reaction to western actions then that provides westerners with a form of \”control\”: when we act, they react, and so if we could act differently that would stop the terrorism.

This desire for a measure of control is understandable, and quite typical in the face of terrorists. It was even seen in some of the commentary about Aum Shinrikyo´s sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995: the sect must be a reaction to ills in Japanese society, some said. But that was a delusion, and so the idea that al-Qaeda´s terrorism is a reaction is also a delusion.

Evil is often done by human beings not in reaction to the actions of others but simply for its own ends or own purposes. Similarly, the signs are that the al-Qaeda terrorists simply have their own view of how the world should be run and about who should run it, a view that would exist regardless of what America, Europe and Japan is, or does. It is based on a religious belief, but one that is well out of line from the mainstream beliefs of Islam.

Of course, it may be dangerous to generalise in quite this way. Some messianic Islamic terrorists may believe that their devastating and deadly acts are paying back the West for actions done in the Middle East, Bosnia, Kashmir, Indonesia or elsewhere, while others, centred on Osama bin Laden himself, may have the more general beliefs that I have described. However, intelligence agencies around the world that I have talked to firmly think that the leaders of al-Qaeda, the core of the terrorists, are acting regardless of what the West does, and that their beliefs are based on their own religious world view. Fringe recruits may be motivated by western actions, but the leadership is not.

That is the basis of the personal opinion I outlined at the start of this article. But should we be optimistic or pessimistic as a result, if this view is correct? In the short term, we should be somewhat pessimistic. The core, leading terrorists are not people who can be negotiated with, discouraged by concessions or affected by our better actions. They will try to kill us regardless of what we do. Therefore, it is absolutely vital that the rich countries that are their main targets, in other words America, Europe, Australia and Japan, should continue remorselessly with the effort to catch and if necessary kill these terrorists before they kill us.

But in the medium or longer term, this is an optimistic conclusion. We in the West do not need to cringe or hide or try to appease the terrorists, for that would do no good, at least as far as the leaders are concerned. So we should carry on trying to help the Middle East to stabilise and modernise as best we can, even though the terrorists oppose that. And we can be comforted by the belief that if we succeed in that effort the vast majority of Muslims will be pleased, not angry, for what they want is not messianic terrorism but jobs, safety and better health.

The fight against terrorism is not the \”clash of civilisations\” that a Harvard University professor, Samuel Huntington, wrote about a few years ago. It is a fight against a relatively small number of evil or perhaps deranged people, rather as Aum Shinrikyo was the creature of Asahara Shoko. That means that it is winnable—but also that it must be won.