There are two dimensions to fighting a War on Terror. One is fighting terrorists and the other is fighting terrorism. In conventional warfare there isn’t that much of a difference between fighting men and their tactics. There is a wider space between fighting terrorists and their tactics.
Conventional armies use tactics to defeat enemy forces and seize territory. Terrorists however use tactics to take over mental territory. A suicide bomber is not out to take over a particular block. He is out to change how the enemy and his side think about that city block and the larger conflict.
Terrorism has succeeded in accomplishing that goal in Israel. The scale of terrorism turned every piece of land into a mathematical equation. How many lives was this village in Gaza worth? How many lives is this West Bank town worth? How many lives is East Jerusalem worth?
This emotional calculus is misleading because it is an immediate response to a set of deaths. However terrorists are not trading an end to violence for a village or a town. They are calculating how many deaths it will take to force Israel to abandon that village or town. And once they have it, they will use it to inflict more terror on another town or village, this time using rockets.
Israelis were convinced that a price in lives had been put on Gaza and that if they withdrew, the killing would end. But Gaza was just the beginning. Not the end. There is never an end.
The goal of a terrorist movement is to change the relative perceptions of strength and the freedom of movement of both sides. Terror tactics create the perception that the winning side is losing. This perception can be so compelling that both sides come to accept it as reality. Terrorists manufacture victories by trapping their enemies in no-win scenarios that wear down their morale.
That is what has been happening to Israel. The entire carrot and stick of the peace process and the suicide bombing, the final agreement that never comes and the final solution that is coming, were designed to wear down Israelis, to make their leaders and people chase down empty hopes and argue among themselves over who is to blame because there is still no peace.
The last few decades were meant to create a sense of helplessness among Israelis.
Taking hostages is one form of the no-win scenario. If the winning side can’t cut the Gordian Knot by rescuing the hostages, it faces a choice between releasing terrorists or having to watch its own people held captive or killed. Either one creates a sense of helplessness and defeat.
Terrorists are not attacking land or buildings. They are targeting morale. Their goal is to destroy the mental and spiritual resistance of a people by wearing it down with acts of terror, tying it down with moral and legalistic debates, and finally finishing it off with negotiations that are also designed to wear down the other side without ever concluding a final agreement.
As important as it is to defeat terrorists as individuals, it is even more important to defeat their tactics.
The first and best way to defeat terrorist tactics is to refuse to negotiate with terrorists. Terrorist tactics work best when they create complicity on the other side. The first wave of complicity comes from leftist activists and sympathetic terror lawyers making human rights arguments. But the second wave of complicity has to come from the authorities for terrorism to be successful.
Negotiating with terrorists makes the negotiators complicit in whatever plans the terrorists have. Once negotiations begin, the terrorists will force the negotiators to violate their own side’s values and to sell out portions of their own population or those of allied countries. These tactics allow the terrorists to divide and conquer the enemy. And to use one enemy against another.
A terrorist group that seizes hostages from Country X in exchange for Country Y freeing prisoners has managed to turn two of its enemies against each other with a small investment of resources. If Country Y frees the prisoners, the terrorists win. If Country Y doesn’t free the prisoners, they still win because Country X will now blame Country Y, rather than the terrorists, for what happened.
Swap the two countries for two groups of people inside a country and it becomes easier to understand what the terrorists are trying to accomplish by taking hostages.
Once you negotiate with terrorists, they will leverage those negotiations to make you complicit in their own violence against you. If you negotiate with them long enough, you will end up defending and even validating their acts of terror.
Israelis were convinced that they could buy their way out of the problem by betraying their fellow citizens living in the West Bank and Gaza. And then by betraying the families of terror victims. European leaders are convinced that they can have peace in their time by pressuring Israel and restraining America. American leaders are convinced that peace will come if they can pressure the Europeans and Israelis to stop offending Muslims.
This is classic divide and conquer.
The greatest danger of fighting terrorists is falling into a reactive pattern. The more you react to what terrorists do, the more they set the agenda. Taking hostages is the ultimate reactive trap. The kidnapping of three Israeli boys has sent Israel into the same predictable pattern, rounding up the usual suspects, making temporary arrests and a public outcry that, like the one surrounding Gilad Shalit, can easily be turned into a campaign to pay any price to free them.
The only way to defeat a terrorist tactic is to invalidate it. The act of invalidating it is often painful, but it’s less painful than not doing it. Refusing to negotiate with terrorists cripples their ability to set the agenda. It’s hard to divide and conquer people who won’t talk to you. It’s difficult to make them complicit in the terrorism against them if they won’t enter into a dialogue.
Human shields proliferate because they work. The only way to invalidate them as a tactic is by reacting to terrorists the same way, whether or not they are using a human shield. Hostages are taken because the terrorists have a realistic expectation of striking a deal.
Eliminate the deal and the hostage taking ends.
Terrorists create a sense of helplessness by forcing a society to experience pain without having any control over it. The experience of being terrorized is not merely horror and death, but the inability to control how it happens. It is this need for control that leads to Stockholm syndrome, identifying with terrorists and accepting their agenda in exchange for having some control over their terror.
It is not enough for a society to endure the pain that terrorists inflict. Every person and every culture has their breaking point. Instead a society must be willing to inflict pain on its own body to prevent greater pain and suffering. A society that is no longer able to do this is caught in its own sense of helplessness and is doomed. It is so focused on avoiding pain that it can no longer fight back.
War is a form of pain that we inflict on our society to spare ourselves the greater pain of conquest and defeat. Resistance to terrorism may also require other smaller forms of martyrdom that allow a society to assert control over its own destiny. One of these is not negotiating with terrorists.
When a society is willing to defy the power that its enemies wield over it by causing its own pain, it destroys their power over it and escapes the helplessness that will otherwise kill it. It breaks free of the chain of concessions that will inevitably lead it to betray its principles and lose its soul.
Israel has already gone too far down the road to helplessness. And it is not alone. Every nation, society and culture confronted with Islamic terrorism seeks ways to spare itself the pain. But the pain can only end when the terrorists are thoroughly defeated. A nation that cannot rouse itself to defeating the terrorists in an overwhelming and comprehensive campaign, must at least learn to defeat their tactics.
Defeating terrorist tactics can be more important than defeating terrorists. It is not that hard for a modern nation to kill a terrorist. It is much more difficult for it to take the harder route, to make a difficult sacrifice, to violate its own sense of itself and to challenge its own morality. Drones allow us to kill enemies from a distance at the push of a button. But drones cannot protect the morale of a nation.
Every society must find its own reasons for continuing on. A conflict forces us to question whether we can go on. It demands that we rise to the challenge with courage, determination and sacrifice. And in doing so, we rediscover ourselves.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish.