Skip to main content

by Curtis F. Jones

“In an imperfect world, terrorism,
like war, is a necessary evil.”

 On July 20, 1944,

a massive conspiracy against Adolf Hitler culminated in the explosion of a bomb at his headquarters in Rastenburg. Hitler escaped with superficial injuries. The man who placed the bomb, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, was soon executed. Of the several thousand others killed for complicity in the act, Protestant churchman Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood out. An anti-Nazi activist since 1933, he rejected an opportunity to take refuge in the United States, was jailed in 1943, and was executed in early 1945 after the German authorities discovered documents connecting him with the conspiracy.

Bonhoeffer goes down in history in the admirable company of persons like Erskine Childers (executed by the British for membership in the IRA) and Steve Biko (beaten to death by South African police for membership in the ANC), along with countless other protagonists of causes now generally applauded as liberation movements. Many Germans defended their participation in Nazi atrocities on the grounds that they were simply following orders, taking the position that if any agency was guilty of crimes against humanity, it was the German state. The Nuremberg tribunal rejected this defense. In so doing, the tribunal implicitly concluded that the ultimate arbiter of the legitimacy of a violent act must be the conscience of the activist himself. Whether he is later hailed as a freedom fighter or vilified as a terrorist should be irrelevant to his purpose.

The German law that condemned Bonhoeffer was invalidated by international action in two arenas. First, Germany lost the war. If the story ended there, it could be dismissed with the cynical axiom that history is written by the winners. However, the Allies went on to convene the Nuremberg trials, which held Naziism up against a broader ethical standard and condemned it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, long acclaimed as a patriot by the world at large, was belatedly vindicated by his own country, which exonerated him in 1996.

 Individual conscience 
The primary importance of individual conscience, as enunciated at Nuremberg, imposes on the government specific obligations:

  • First, government must recognized the right of every individual to challenge its authority;
  • second, it must assess, as objectively as possible, the legitimacy of any such challenge;
  • third, it must provide its institutions and its citizens the best possible security against irrational violence (a prime example of which is the Japanese doomsday sect that in 1995 carried out a lethal gas attack in Tokyo);
  • fourth, and most difficult, it must meet legitimate challenge with flexibility and understanding.

Terrorism has a simple, comprehensive definition: It is illegal political violence. But no practical or ethical purpose is served by characterizing all of its practitioners as terrorists. Each case is unique. Each terrorist action occupies only one point on the spectrum of political violence. History teaches us that violence is the ultimate determinant; society depends on law, and law depends on the apparatus to enforce it. Thus, government necessarily exercises violence — controlled, legal violence.

Legality is the imponderable element in the equation. Over the millennia, mankind has evolved an ethical consensus based on equal treatment for all. The major religions of the world are grounded in this maxim. When national law violates this consensus, its victims very often have no pacific recourse. In recent centuries nations have built up an extensive body of international law, but the means of enforcement remain to be established.

The world of today is awash in persons and entities whose actions meet this definition of terrorism. Most governments have had to deal with violent challenges to their authority. Many have responded in kind. Human rights organizations catalog those that routinely torture and assassinate dissidents at home and abroad, in clear violation of international convention and often their own national law. The governments of Iran and Libya allegedly have been particularly zealous in the pursuit of dissidents, “blasphemers” (such as Salman Rushdie), and targets as incongruous as the wife of the captain of the U.S.S. Vincennes, a warship that mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf.

 Policy Goal: Reducing Violence 

In an imperfect world, terrorism, like war, is a necessary evil, but it should not be beyond human ingenuity to reduce its incidence. The objective in this analysis is not to become mired in the endless debate over the legitimacy of any specific act of violence, but to concentrate on the identification of those policies best calculated to promote a reduction.

Determining such policies has special interest for Americans, who have become the prime target of terrorist activity. From 1979 to 1995, there were 360 documented attacks on American diplomatic and consular posts, ranging from sniping incidents to hostage taking to assassination to truck bombing. Since 1970, U.S. airliners have been hijacked, attacked on the ground, and blown up in midair. U.S. military facilities have been bombed with heavy loss of life, notably at a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, an office in Saudi Arabia in 1995, and an apartment building in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Terrorism has also appeared in the United States, as in the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center in 1993 and the Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Thus far, foreign terrorists have not taken full advantage of America’s open society. The Islamist group headed by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted in 1996 of conspiring to blow up various prominent sites in New York City, was apprehended before they carried out any of their plans. The leader of the Palestinian group convicted of setting the destructive charges at the World Trade Center at the World Trade Center, Ahmad Ramzi Yousef, proved to be amateurish in keeping a cover story and was soon identified.

Perhaps there are grounds for hope that the United States derives some measure of protection at home by virtue of that very openness. A multicultural society provides foreign political movements with invaluable opportunities for organizing, recruiting, propaganda, weapons training, and importantly, the collection of funds from American sympathizers. The freedom that foreign activists enjoy in the United States, then, may paradoxically act as an insurance policy that will head off most terrorism on U.S. soil.

  • Abroad it is another story. The United States is seized with the immediate problem of preventing the murder of its citizens overseas and with the long-range objective of directing dissident energies into less destructive channels. Accurate intelligence is not enough. The brilliance of the police work, for example, that led to the presumed destroyers of a Pan Am airliner over Scotland came too late to save the lives of its passengers.
     Strategy: Reducing Grievances That Fuel Violence 

    The fundamental strategy for reducing the global level of violence must be reduction of the sense of grievance that fuels it. The principle was incorporated in the Magna Carta in 1225: “To no one shall we deny justice.” Seven centuries later, the UN Charter committed its signatories to justice as defined in international law, and to the renunciation of armed force, “save in the common interest.” The Nazi practice of taking and killing civilian hostages led to the adoption in 1949 of the four Geneva Conventions dealing with war crimes. The Protocols of 1977 extended those Conventions to apply to civil wars and wars of national liberation.

    The decision, however, of the Reagan Administration not to ratify the Protocols, on the grounds that they could be cited to legitimate terrorism, suggests that a rise to the status of superpower has converted the United States from a revolutionary nation in 1776 to a status quo state two centuries later.

    America’s mainstream media have failed to make clear that the United States itself figures prominently in the ranks of international lawbreakers — this in aid of maintaining the status quo. Going back at least to 1637, when English colonists massacred several hundred Pequot Indians in Connecticut, American leaders have committed American lives and resources to questionable military actions, clandestine operations against foreign governments, attempts to assassinate foreign heads of state, and in at least once instance (Operation Phoenix in Vietnam) conduct of an enterprise that can only be characterized as a death squad.

    Further, the United States has incurred indirect culpability by lending financial, logistical, and political support to the repressive actions of various right wing factions and regimes around the world. In this way, Washington seems to have shared responsibility for such operations as the 1985 attempt by Saudi operatives to kill Shiite dignitary Fadlallah in Beirut with an attendant death toll of eighty persons and the 1981 massacre of some 600 peasants by U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers at El Mozote. Additionally, one can cite the extralegal operations of Israel’s counter terrorist agencies, including the systematic torture of Palestinian suspects (as alleged by Amnesty International) and assassinations by undercover units operating in the Occupied Territories (as proclaimed by the Likud Party in the 1992 elections).

    Perhaps some — or even all — of these U.S.-supported actions were ethically or strategically defensible, but their justification is not the issue here. The point is that the United States must come to recognize that most anti-American terrorism is a direct consequence of American foreign policy. Operating unilaterally or, when convenient, through complaisant allies and a toothless UN, since World War II the United States has intervened in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The purpose of such policy initiatives has been to promote actively political conditions said to be vital to the national interest or conducive to world peace.

     Anti-American Backlash 

    This assertive policy has provoked a costly backlash. Examples follow:

  • In 1953, the CIA financed a coup that ousted Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, restored the Shah to the throne, and sowed the seeds of anti-Americanism. In 1979, the monarchy was replaced by a theocratic regime that adopted policies hostile to America and its Middle East allies, and that held the Tehran Embassy staff hostage for over a year.
  • In 1983, over the protests of the Marine colonel on the scene, Washington ordered units of the Sixth Fleet to shell Lebanese forces in the hills above Beirut. Hundreds of civilians died in the American gunfire. The most grisly consequence was the truck bombing of a barracks in October of that year, resulting in the deaths of 241 Marines.
  • In 1986, a bomb in a Berlin discotheque caused many American casualties; acting on intelligence that ascribed the bombing to Libya, President Reagan ordered an air raid on Tripoli in April. Also that year, in a tragic case of mistaken identity, the U.S.S. Vincennes downed an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf. According to one account, U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iran subsequently contracted with a Palestinian organization, the PFLP/General Command, to blow up an American airliner in retaliation for the action by the Vincennes. General Command operatives in Germany undertook the assignment, but finding their organization under close German surveillance, subcontracted the task to Libyan intelligence. The result, according to this report, was the midair explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland at the end of the year and a death toll of 270 people.
  • In 1995, seven people — five of them Americans — died in the bombing of an office used by an American military training unit at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Some months later, the Saudi government beheaded four Saudis convicted of complicity in the attack. In June 1996, in presumed retaliation or continuation of the anti-American campaign, unknown persons bombed a Dhahran apartment building, killing nineteen resident personnel of the U.S. Air Force.

It is no coincidence that most costly incidents of anti-American terrorism in recent years took place in the Middle East. Perhaps the most extreme example of post-World War II American paternalism is U.S. determination to deny hegemony over that oil-rich area to any rival power. This commitment to a precarious status quo puts the United States in opposition to the perceived interests of the regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and to the currents of Islamism and Arab nationalism throughout the region.

While professing to act as the impartial protagonist of peace and justice in the Middle East, Washington has aligned itself with only two of the several competitors in a chaotic regional power struggle. Its first and foremost ally is Israel; its secondary ally is the faltering clique of reactionary rulers in the Arabian Peninsula.

The United States treats the opponents of these two sets of allies as automatically constituting opponents of America itself, to the extent that every American intervention in the region, however evenhanded in concept, ends up as an American engagement on the side of its chosen allies. When President Clinton sent cruise missiles against Baghdad in June 1993 as punishment for a putative Iraqi assassination attempt in Kuwait on former President Bush, Arab commentators contrasted America’s readiness to bomb Muslims in Iraq with its reluctance to bomb Christians in Bosnia, even though the nation had denounced the latter for practicing ethnic cleansing.

A number of Third World countries continue their long and convulsive passage from colonialism to full independence. Part of the cost in making this change evidently must be paid in blood, mainly by the people of the Third World nations directly concerned, but also as an adjunct to the process by the nationals of any country that seeks to intervene. Here the United States’s actions in the Middle East illustrate the point. And this being the case, the question arises as to what policy options are best calculated, above all, to reduce the toll in human lives.

 US Strategy Choice: Retaliate or Negotiate? 

It seems fair to assume that the United States is determined to continue its activist foreign policies in the post-Cold War world. Washington, if faced with the threat or actuality of terrorism, nonetheless has a strategic choice between retaliation and negotiation.

Under isolated circumstances, reprisal can be morally justifiable and tactically effective. During the Civil War, President Lincoln halted the Confederate practice of killing black Union troops and their white officers by threatening retaliatory executions of Confederate prisoners of war. In that situation, justice was on the side of the Union. But today in the Third World, violence is most often the inevitable expression of legitimate grievances against local oppression or foreign interference. The violence can be attenuated only by political and economic reform, not by counter violence.

President Reagan enunciated the doctrine of counter violence when he ordered the raid on Tripoli: “There should be no place on earth where terrorists. . . can practice their deadly skills.” This sentiment has a ring to it, but it usually ends badly. America’s so-called surgical strikes always manage to kill more innocent civilians than terrorists. And they complicate relations with American allies. Worst of all, such strikes raise the level of anti-Americanism around the world.

If the United States steps back from military reprisal in response to terrorist action, it still has the option of economic sanctions. These measures seem to have contributed to resolution of the racial conflict in South Africa, although only when combined with a monumental change of heart by the white establishment. U.S.-sponsored sanctions against Iraq and Iran have had no identifiable effect on the policies of their government, while inflicting illness and death on thousands of Iraqi children and opening the door to the charge (by Christopher Hitchens) that the American definition of a terrorist is a “swarthy opponent of U.S. foreign policy.”

 US Policy Tests: Morality & Consensus 

Taking whatever action is feasible, the United States has an obligation to lead the campaign to reduce international violence. That effort will succeed only insofar as it meets the tests of morality and consensus .


is all too often subordinated to the politics of the double standard. An egregious example is a statement in 1991 attributed to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: “Jewish terrorism is acceptable because Jews are stateless and persecuted. Palestinian terrorism is not because Palestine belongs to Israel.”

The United States has not only supported Israel in its application of the double standard to its Arab adversaries, but it has committed the same mistake on its own account. In late 1985, the United States supported a Security Council resolution outlawing the abduction of a country’s citizens by another country. Yet in November 1989, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Barr told a Congressional committee that the national interest sometimes requires the United States to ignore international law. He gave as an example the need to authorize the FBI to pursue non American fugitives abroad. American authorities have, indeed, abducted Palestinian hijackers from Cyprus and from Malta.

A strong argument can be made in some cases for extralegal abductions. The case of Adolf Eichmann comes to mind. It seems unlikely, however, that the United States would ever be understanding of foreign action against its own legal residents, particularly if they were IRA activists.


is best expressed through international organization, starting with the UN. That truism is often ridiculed by American politicians and government officials. If the Security Council endorses an American initiative, the United States is likely to operate under the UN aegis, as in the military action against Iraq in 1991. If not, the United States may go ahead on its own, as in the establishment of “no-fly zones” in Iraq. When Nicaragua appealed to the International Court of Justice against the CIA’s mining of Nicaraguan waters, the United States rejected the court’s jurisdiction in the matter.

No nation, however powerful, is qualified or entitled to be the policeman of the world. Fortunately, if U.S. policy is not always democratic, the American political system is and it enjoys the system’s capacity to learn from experience. In the context of terrorism, when South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was honored at a Washington dinner in 1990, his hosts included three U.S. Senators who had voted five years previously to condemn his African National Congress as a terrorist organization.

 There are grounds for hope,

therefore, that the United States will learn to accord the UN more than lip service. It will learn to balance the national interest against the broader dictates of morality and consensus. And the nation, one hopes, will learn to recognize that the answer to violence often is to be found in the area of political and economic reforms, not necessarily through military means. However compelling some segments of society find violence as a means to express their sense of injustice, it should not be beyond our capabilities to reduce drastically the incidence of bloodshed by addressing basic human needs — not by answering bombs with bombs.

Curt Jones, a retired U. S. career diplomat, has been a consultant with the Department of State on terrorism. See his brief biographic entry in this issue of American Diplomacy. ~ Ed.

Comments are closed.