8 Ways to Defend Against Terror Nonviolently
One of my most popular courses at Swarthmore College
focused on the challenge of how to defend against terrorism, nonviolently. Events now unfolding in France make our course more relevant than ever. (The syllabus was published in “Peace, Justice, and Security Studies: A Curriculum Guide” in 2009.) In fact, the international post-9/11 “war against terror” has been accompanied by increased actual threats of terror almost everywhere.
In the first place, who knew that non-military techniques have, in actual historical cases, reduced the threat of terror?
I gathered for the students eight non-military techniques that have worked for some country or other. The eight comprised the “toolbox” that the students had to work with. We didn’t spend time criticizing military counter-terrorism because we were more interested in alternatives.
Each student chose a country somewhere in the world that is presently threatened by terrorism and, taking the role of a consultant to that country, devised from our nonviolent toolbox a strategy for defines….
What are the eight techniques?
1. Ally-building and the infrastructure of economic development
Poverty and terrorism are indirectly linked. Economic development can reduce recruits and gain allies, especially if development is done in a democratic way. The terrorism by Northern Ireland’s Irish Republican Army, for example, was strongly reduced by grassroots, job-creating, economic development.
2. Reducing cultural marginalization
As France, Britain and other countries have learned, marginalizing a group within your population is not safe or sensible; terrorists grow under those conditions. This is also true on a global level. Much marginalizing is unintentional, but it can be reduced. “Freedom of the press,” for example, transforms into “provocation” when it further marginalizes a population that is already one-down, as are Muslims in France. When Anglophone Canada reduced its marginalization, it reduced the threat of terrorism from Quebec.
3. Nonviolent protest/campaigns among the defenders, plus unarmed civilian peacekeeping
Terrorism happens in a larger context and is therefore influenced by that context. Some terror campaigns have lapsed because they lost popular support. That’s because terror’s strategic use is often to gain attention, provoke a violent response and win more support in the broader population.
The rise and fall of support for terrorism is in turn influenced by social movements using people power, or nonviolent struggle. The U.S. civil rights movement brilliantly handled the Ku Klux Klan’s threat to activists, most dangerous when there was no effective law enforcement to help. The nonviolent tactics reduced the KKK’s appeal among white segregationists. Since the 1980s, pacifists and others have established an additional, promising tool: intentional and planned unarmed civilian peacekeeping. (Check out Peace Brigades International, for one example.)
4. Pro-conflict education and training
Ironically, terror often happens when a population tries to suppress conflicts instead of supporting their expression. A technique for reducing terror, therefore, is to spread a pro-conflict attitude and the nonviolent skills that support people waging conflict to give full voice to their grievances.
5. Post-terror recovery programs
Not all terror can be prevented, any more than all crime can be prevented. Keep in mind that terrorists often have the goal of increasing polarization. Recovery programs can help prevent that polarization, the cycle of hawks on one side “arming” the hawks on the other side. One place we’ve seen this cycle of violence is in the Palestine/Israel struggle.
Recovery programs build resilience, so people don’t go rigid with fear and create self-fulfilling prophecies. The leap forward in trauma counseling is relevant for this technique along with innovative rituals such as those the Norwegians used after the 2011 terrorist massacre there.
6. Police as peace officers: the infrastructure of norms and laws
Police work can become far more effective through more community policing and reduction of the social distance between police and the neighborhoods they serve. In some countries this requires re-conceptualization of the police from defenders of the property of the dominant group to genuine peace officers; witness the unarmed Icelandic police. Countries like the United States need to join the growing global infrastructure of human rights law reflected in the Land Mines Treaty and International Criminal Court, and accept accountability for their own officials who are probable war criminals.
7. Policy changes and the concept of reckless behavior
Governments sometimes make choices that invite — almost beg for — a terrorist response. Political scientist and sometime U.S. Air Force consultant Robert A. Pape showed in 2005 that the United States has repeatedly done this, often by putting troops on someone else’s land. In his recent book “Cutting the Fuse,” he and James K. Feldman give concrete examples of governments reducing the terror threat by ending such reckless behavior. To protect themselves from terror, citizens in all countries need to gain control of their own governments and force them to behave.
Governments often say “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” but when they say that they are often lying. Governments have often reduced or eliminated terrorism through negotiation, and negotiation skills continue to grow in sophistication.
Realistic application of non-military defense against terror
At the request of a group of U.S. experts on counter-terrorism, I described our Swarthmore work and especially the eight techniques. The experts recognized that each of these tools have indeed been used in real-life situations in one place or another, with some degree of success. They also saw no problem, in principle, in devising a comprehensive strategy that would create synergies among the tools.
The problem they saw was persuading a government to take such a bold, innovative leap.