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Terrorism: Global Insecurity or Global Hyperbole?

by Louis A. Delvoie

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Over the last three years, the words “terrorism” and “nine/eleven” have come to occupy in our lexicon a place once reserved for terms such as “the red menace” or “the yellow peril.” They are intended to convey the idea of something essentially menacing and frightening on a very grand scale, if not a metaphysical or existential scale. They are used to refer equally to the real and the potential, the known and the unknown. And they are everywhere – the front pages of newspapers, the shelves of bookstores, the pronouncements of politicians and experts. In the discourse of the responsible, they are meant to counsel prudence and vigilance, but given the atmosphere that has been created around them, they tend to engender fear, if not paranoia.

The threat of terrorism is, of course, real. It demands that governments act to protect the safety of their citizens and their realms. As Canada’s deputy prime minister, Anne McLellan, said in a speech in 2004: “We must always be vigilant about new threats, and we must always be looking for ways to improve and coordinate our intelligence, our prevention strategies and our emergency response capabilities. We must continuously review our plans, update our systems and test our people.” This all makes perfect sense, and for a government to do anything less would be downright irresponsible in terms of protecting Canadians and of ensuring Canada’s continued access to the all-important US market. This is, however, a very far cry from the jeremiads of pundits of all professions and persuasions, who daily proclaim that, because of international terrorism, we are now living in a world of unprecedented danger and that combating terrorism should be or should become the first and overarching priority of all Western governments. Such pronouncements, in fact, betray a wilful or woeful ignorance of history, and of contemporary realities.

A sense of proportion is essential in all things, including the assessment of threats. What is al Qaeda and its associated networks? It is a loose grouping of perhaps a few hundred or a few thousand more-or-less well-educated and more-or-less well-organized individuals spread out across Northern Africa and the Eurasian landmass. In recent years, it has proved itself capable of mounting a few localized but spectacular operations in New York, Washington, Bali, Casablanca, Mombassa and Madrid. These operations resulted in the deaths of some 5000 people and the destruction of a dozen buildings. All eminently regrettable, but hardly the Third World War.

But, the argument goes, al Qaeda or one of its offshoots could acquire nuclear weapons and/or intercontinental ballistic missiles, and thus become far more dangerous to the West. True, it could. And the Queen could undergo a sex change operation and become King. Both eventualities are, however, somewhat remote. The acquisition, storage, transport and detonation of nuclear weapons are all full of complexities that far exceed the competencies required to highjack and pilot civilian aircraft. As for ICBMs, the technological, industrial and military capabilities required to produce, deploy and launch them are ones that are totally beyond the reach of non-state actors. And even if al Qaeda could, by stealth, acquire one or two small nuclear devices (the so-called “suitcase bombs” of Cold War era folklore) the damage they could inflict would be essentially limited to one location, and would certainly pose no generalized threat to the West as a whole.

The simple fact is that the people of the Western world have not, in living memory, enjoyed a more benign international security environment than the one they enjoy today. The first half of the Twentieth Century was dominated by two world wars, in which it is estimated that nearly 100 million people died. The second half of the century was dominated by the Cold War, in the course of which the superpowers arrayed against each other arsenals comprising thousands of nuclear weapons and delivery systems capable of killing hundreds of millions of people, and of taking much of the planet back to the Stone Age. And, of course, the Cold War played itself out in numerous bloody proxy conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and so on. No comparable threat exists today. When stacked up against the armed might of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Soviet Russia, the ragtag bands of al Qaeda cut a pretty pathetic figure.

This is not to suggest that major security issues and threats do not exist in the contemporary world. Africa is still the scene of horrendous civil wars. In the Congo alone more than three million people have died in five years of internecine conflict, and fighting continues in Sudan, Somalia, the Ivory Coast and Uganda. For the peoples of Southern Africa, the ravages of HIV/AIDS may lead to the collapse of entire societies. At a more conventional level of inter-state rivalries, the highly complex set of relationships that link Pakistan, India, China and Japan could lead to conflict in the longer term, and they merit sustained attention. But these are not threats directed at the West, and they certainly do not emanate from terrorism.

The question may well be asked whether all of the hyperbole about international terrorism really matters. The answer is a resounding “yes,” on several fronts. In countries such as Canada, the United States and Great Britain, it has led to the adoption of emergency legislation that calls into question a host of traditional civil rights and that are amenable to widespread abuse. It has also led to hasty and ill-thought-out governmental reorganizations, most notably in the United States where the new Department of Homeland Security has been described by one American commentator, Michael Crowley in the New Republic, as “a bureaucratic Frankenstein, with clumsily-stitched-together limbs and an inadequate, misfiring brain.” Finally, it has resulted in the diversion of vast budgetary resources to anti-terrorism programs, some of which at least could have been devoted more usefully to health care, higher education or conventional defence capabilities.

The terrorism fixation also has perverse consequences internationally. In the discourse of political and religious ideologues, and in that of ignoramuses of all persuasions who do not even understand the simple distinction between Islamic and Islamist, it is used to demonize and convict one billion Muslims for the sins of a few hundred. In so doing, it creates heightened levels of animosity and suspicion on both sides in relations between Western and Muslim societies. The fixation has also been systematically exploited by the leaders of countries such as Russia, India and Israel, to cover up the excesses and widespread human rights violations committed by their security forces in Chechnya, Kashmir and Palestine. By portraying these complex political, ethnic and territorial conflicts as little more than theatres in the war on terrorism, they have managed to escape the scrutiny and censure to which they would otherwise have been subjected on the part of Western countries. That too does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world.

In short, international terrorism of the al Qaeda variety is a real threat that should not be taken lightly. What is more, it is unlikely to disappear soon, for it goes to the heart of deep divisions within the Muslim world itself, just as much as it represents a campaign against Western interests and policies. That said, it is not an existential threat, and there is not a bearded terrorist under every bed in the Western world. It is a limited and manageable threat. It can be managed and minimized through effective action by, and cooperation among, intelligence and security services worldwide. The sooner politicians and others perceive and portray it in its true proportions, the better off we shall all be.

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Louis Delvoie, a retired Canadian diplomat, is now a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Relations, Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario.