|Jaw-Jaw Is Better Than War-War
To solve any problem, we first have to define it. So how do we
define terrorism? My favorite definition? Terrorism is
"organized violence for political purposes."
Each word in the definition matters. Terrorism is not a
disorganized mob. It is not random. It is first and foremost
Secondly, it is violent. Terrorism uses force to achieve its
goals. Because of it people suffer – the guilty and innocent
together. Peaceful demonstrations aren’t terrorism, even if we
despise the causes and the demonstrators. Gandhi brought
down an empire through largely-peaceful means.
Terrorism is political. Sometimes those who practice terrorism
dress it up in different costumes. It may masquerade as a
religious crusade, a liberation movement, or even the interests
of national security. But terrorism’s intent is to change politics,
to move public opinion, to cause changes in society.
Terrorism has its purposes. As with many human activities, the
stated purpose and the real purpose may be two different
things. For instance, al-Qaeda insists it is fighting for the purity
of Islam. It is actually fighting to expel Western powers,
especially the US, from Muslim lands, so it can replace them.
"Organized violence for political purposes."
The definition may seem broad. It is so broad, in fact, that it is
almost synonymous with war. War, too, is "organized violence
for political purposes."
So what’s the difference?
Terrorism is usually practice by non-state actors. Terrorists
don’t usually work for recognized governments. It is the kind of
war the weak wage to get the attention of the strong.
Another, more cynical, definition? Terrorism is something done
by people we don’t like. War is something we do in response.
Knowing this, how do we deal with it? First of all, we admit the
obvious. Murder is murder, regardless of who commits it. It is
always a moral evil. We may believe it is a necessary evil at
times, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is an evil all the
same. A handsome devil is still a devil.
Secondly, the first job of any legitimate government is to
protects its citizens from harm. If it can’t do that, is it really a
government? Iraq may have had nice elections, but if the
government can’t protect the people what exactly can it do?
If someone intends to kill me or those I love, I am within my
rights to defend them. Indeed, I am obligated to defend them.
This isn’t about being “soft” on terrorism. I expect my
government to be vigilant in protecting those I love.
That said, terrorism is usually the extreme expression of an
underlying grievance. Someone must feel terribly wronged to
blow innocent bystanders to bits.
We may not be able to stop the lunatic fringe with anything
other than force. But we need to understand the sea in which
extremist “fish” swim. Why does the great mass feel wronged?
Regardless of whose fault it is, how do we address the
underlying issue? How do we back people down from the brink?
We talk. We listen. We make an effort to understand them.
We move forward together because we can't move apart. The
planet is just too small.
Some scoff at the notion of "negotiating with terrorists." You
can’t negotiate with people like that, they say. To some extent
that’s true: that’s why we start with the right to defend
ourselves. We aren’t soft on terror.
But if force is the only weapon we use, when will the wars end?
As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye means the whole world
Some object to the very idea of talking to radical groups. Yet
we talked with the Soviet Union for sixty years. The Soviets did
terrible things to their own people and to others, far beyond
anything Islamists have done to date.
Still we talked. As Winston Churchill put it, “Jaw-jaw is better
Given everything Churchill had lived through by the time he
said that in the 1950s, who can argue with him?
If “war-war” is our only response, we run up against another
maxim of human life. In Nietzsche’s words, “Those who fight
against monsters must take care lest they become
So we talk, as long as necessary, despite the frustrations of it,
til we're blue in the face if we have to. Jaw-jaw is better than
war-war under all but the most extreme circumstances.
Being willing to talk to people we don't like takes a little
humility. But isn't a little humility better than a lot of blood? It is
if it's my blood!
Humility requires that we look at the world as it is, rather than
only as we wish it would be. In the real world, people do feel
offended and grieved. In the real world, prudent people,
prudent governments, want to know why. We may not agree
with the answer, but we ought to at least want to know what the
Then, we practice a little compassion. We have a little mercy,
even on people who don’t deserve it. The History Channel
recently did a story on labor relations during World War I that
relates to this.
Germany and Russia both collapsed near the end of World
War I because domestic labor relations fell apart. Aggrieved
workers resorted to revolution.
British workers also felt grievances and objected to injustices.
Yet Britain didn’t fall apart. It held on long enough to bring in
the Americans and achieve “victory,” if any process that kills 8
million deserves that name.
Prudent people ought to know why Germany and Russia fell
apart and Britain didn’t. Germany and Russia were both
governed by autocrats who could only see things one way.
There was no sharing of power in those societies. Those who
had power, had all of it. Those who didn’t have power, didn’t
have any of it.
For one side to win, the other had to lose. Peacetime masked
the tensions. The rich could buy the poor off, usually with the
poor’s own money. Wartime, however, brought such tensions
to the fore.
The price of buying off the poor became so high that the rich
finally refused to pay it. The result was revolution, which is also
“organized violence for political purposes.”
Britain, though, was democratic. Power was shared between
groups. It wasn’t “us versus them,” at least not at home. Lloyd
George, the Prime Minister who eventually led Britain to
“victory,” had a simple solution for labor problems. Concede.
Give them what they want. Get back to the work at hand.
Some would dismiss that as spineless. It may have been, but it
worked. Lloyd George “jaw-jawed” at home, so he could
survive the “war-war” abroad. It’s hard to imagine a better
outcome under such terrible circumstances.
Terrorism is organized violence for political purposes. It is the
type of warfare waged by the weak against the strong. Yet it is
We deal with terrorism by being firm but realistic. If others
attack us, they will suffer grave consequences. Yet we cannot
make war on the whole world. We have to talk to our
opponents at some point, even if they are people we really
In some cases, we give in. We concede. Not in every case,
but in some. We concede on some points for a greater good.
As more people get at least some of what they want, fewer
people will feel so wronged that they are willing to murder in
“Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
John Cunyus is a freelance writer in North Texas. His work is available at www.
©2006, John G. Cunyus
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