Dear terrorist: Please learn from experience

Today Trans7 TV interviewed me, as a ‘man in the street,’ regarding a recent set of ‘book bombs.’ These were, literally, bombs inside books that were delivered to a few Indonesians whom Islamic hardliners oppose. The only injuries thus far were to police officers as one tried to defuse one of the explosive packages. Caught by surprise, I blathered about how it was scary and I asked the terrorists to “please stop.” I almost went back to the reporter to amend my remarks, because my real thought is this: Terrorism almost never works.

I do not automatically oppose everything that gets called terrorism, since groups with legitimate aspirations might otherwise lack the resources, such as military might, to end longstanding, brutal oppression. But, to get my support, the violence has to be less destructive than the oppression it opposes, and it has to have a decent possibility of success in ending that oppression. The former criterion is in the eye of the beholder, but the second now has about forty years of evidence showing that modern terrorism rarely, if ever, works.

Terrorists in Indonesia have the aim of replacing the officially secular, democratic government with a conservative, strictly Islamic state, much like Afghanistan under the Taliban. When has terrorism resulted in the desired change in government? It certainly hasn’t worked out in Palestine. In Latin America, leftist terrorist activity actually led to more-conservative military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. European leftist terrorists hardly incited the proletarian revolution they sought; ETA in Spain and the IRA in Ireland likewise have failed to come close to their nationalist goals. And so forth. If anything, terrorist campaigns to change governing systems most often prompt a long trend away from their goals.

Maybe today’s terrorists will consider the many examples of successful revolutions in the past few decades. Some have resulted from large-scale military struggle – like the United States, long ago – but many of them have resulted from sustained, nonviolent mass protest. (In either case, material support from powerful countries and from at least part of the military certainly helps.)

I sometimes have negative fantasies of being kidnapped by a terrorist group. In my perverse daydreams, I convince them that the evidence clearly shows that their tactic has almost no chance of success. If only such arguments were convincing! Instead, terrorists here seem incapable of such global reassessments. Apparently, if the bombs work, that’s good enough; fortunately, sometimes they don’t.


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