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Thesis & Antithesis

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

04 August 2005

Terrorism’s half-life

On July 28, the Irish Republican Army “formally ordered an end to the armed campaign” and decided to pursue its goals through “exclusively peaceful means.” This pledge has generated plenty speculation: will the IRA live up to it? And what does this mean for terrorism in general?

It is easy to be cynical about the IRA’s promise, if only because the prospect of ending violence has loomed before, only to prove a fanciful dream. What adds to the skepticism is the IRA’s refusal to produce photographs to document the disarmament process; instead the IRA has invited clerics, Protestant and Catholic, to verify the disarmament—“a cockamamie scheme that anywhere but in Northern Ireland would invite derision,” as Lionel Shriver quipped (1).

All the same, there is plenty to suggest that the IRA might stick to its pledge, if only because it has to. As Quentin Peel of the Financial Times wrote, “the armed struggle is being abandoned because it has failed in both its fundamental goals: to deliver a united Ireland, regardless of the will of the Protestant majority in northern Ireland; and to protect the Roman Catholic minority in the North from intimidation and discrimination” (2).

But the real message to take from the IRA’s renunciation of violence is that terrorism, once unleashed, takes on a life of its own. Terrorism thrives by bequeathing fatal skills to those who are desperate and fanatical. From a political standpoint, this means that compromises with terrorists are unlikely to be all encompassing—splinter groups will form in the fringes. The proliferation of terrorist groups in the Middle East is partly explained by the realignment of terrorists away from groups that have turned soft to those that are more hardcore.

The IRA’s experience also shows how easy it is for terrorism to lose focus. In Northern Ireland, terrorism degenerated into mere criminality; the IRA boasted a bank robbery as part of its recent accomplishments—hardly the way to advance an agenda, and hardly useful to curry favor with the community. In Palestine, too, terrorists seems to have lost sight: they measures success in body counts, theirs and the enemy’s, rather than by Israeli actions that favor them.

Even more, the IRA decision underlines the weakness of terrorism as a strategy, at least when levied domestically. Terrorism drives a wedge between the fighters and the people it is trying to appeal to because it often attacks those it tries to persuade. As David Fromkin wrote, “Che Guevara … warned against the strategy of terrorism, arguing that it hinders ‘contact with the masses and makes impossible unification for actions that will be necessary at a critical moment’” (3).

Put otherwise, the IRA’s farewell to arms proves that terrorism is not a sound long term strategy, and is particularly defective when levied in the terrorists’ back ward. Terrorism wears itself out and morphs into something different; it morphs into a military movement, where the glory of war and the passion of struggle trump the strategic calculation and political grievances that gave rise to terrorism in the first place. This half-life is one of the West’s prime assets in dealing with terrorism.

(1) Lionel Shriver, “IRA’s waste,” Wall Street Journal, 1 August 2005; (2) Quentin Peel, “Proof that terror is doomed to fail,” Financial Times, 4 August 2005; (3) David Fromkin, “The Strategy of Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs, July 1975



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