Threat of terror; political terrorism is not likely to disappear from the stage, but viewing it as theater may help prevent mindless tragedies

Threat of terror; political terrorism is not likely to disappear from the stage, but viewing it as theater may help prevent mindless tragedies – includes related article on Achille Lauro hijacking

Jeffrey Z. Rubin

Theater of Terror

Down go the houselights, up goes the curtain and then–BANG. The stage becomes alive with the sounds, the lights and the characters of a highly dramatic performance. The actors are political terrorists. They are the protagonists of much modern tragedy, and their theater is the globe.

Terrorists may explode on the scene in Teheran, Beirut or Latin America, but they soon take the show on the road via television or transportation technology, as with last year’s hijacking of a TWA jet in Athens and the abortive takeover of the Italian liner Achille Lauro. For today’s terrorists, all the world is indeed a stage. And that may be an apt metaphor to help us come to grips with and perhaps devise methods of dealing with political terrorism.

Above all else, terrorists seek leverage, a way of exercising influence beyond their actual means or strength. They are like the Wizard of Oz, menacing and frightening from out front, but behind the scenes really rather inconsequential figures pulling at a set of levers. To be believed, to be heard or to have an impact, terrorists need to be experts in the art of amplification or exaggeration–the real wizardry of theater.

A political terrorist’s first job is to get and hold the attention of the audience–not only to make a big splash on Broadway but also to have an impact out in the streets, guaranteeing an SRO audience in the future. We typically think of terrorists as having short-term goals, such as obtaining the release of prisoners or some governmental admission of guilt, but their most important objective is to attract an audience and deliver a message.

Once they capture the attention of the audience, terrorists must develop the dramatic theme, or message, by giving their actions clear symbolic significance. Members of the Baader-Meinhof gang of Germany, for instance, insisted that they staged their violent acts as a protest against the injustices suffered by the poor and oppressed peoples of the world. An act of terrorism without underlying political justification is as devoid of sympathetic potential as a play without an organizing theme.

Once the plot is set in motion, a convincing dramatic performance must be given. This can be done without elaborate sets or unusual lighting and props, but such devices can be highly effective. A busload of schoolchildren is a far more dramatic target than a busload of military personnel. The hijacking of a planeload of vacationers can get the juices flowing much more vigorously than can a series of letter bombs or an occasional political assassination.

At the heart of the theater metaphor, of course, is the audience. The drama is certainly not put on for the benefit of the victims. Nor are most acts of political terrorism staged solely for the benefit of the particular government involved.

The desired audience is the general public of the target country and often the world public as well. And the best way to reach and hold the interest of such a large and diverse audience is with the assistance of the media. Indeed, Ariel Merari, an Israeli psychologist and expert on terrorism, argues that the media are the focus of much terrorist activity.

In terrorist situations, media personnel are a bit like drama critics who convey information to a group much larger than the immediate theater audience. Terrorists usually do all they can to make sure television, radio and newspaper people tell about the event in sufficient detail, emphasis and color to attract and to hold the audience’s attention.

The media are important to terrorists because they not only relay information but, like good drama critics, interpret it as well. The slant they give–by deciding which events to report and which to ignore, by intentionally or unintentionally expressing approval or disapproval–can create a climate of public support, apathy or anger. During the TWA hijacking, for example, American television conferred tacit legitimacy on the skyjackers by interviewing them on nationwide broadcasts.

Capturing the audience’s attention may be easy, but terrorist organizations need a flair for the dramatic to sustain that interest. This requires changing acts, locations, demands and performers. Perhaps most importantly, it requires some awareness of the psychology of satiation. Even the most interesting piece of music becomes tiring after too many repetitions. And even the most ingeniously staged terrorist action can, if repeated too often, cause the audience to turn away in boredom. To be effective, terrorists cannot strike too often in the same place or the same way.

Changes in locations, demands and even actors may give the impression that some terrorist actions are improvised, but a closer look suggests that most of them are tightly scripted, with fairly predictable moves by both the terrorists and the government.

Terrorists typically begin with some dramatic action, such as the hijacking of an airliner, and then issue threats and a set of demands. The government usually responds by testing the credibility of whatever terrorist threats have been made and by stalling for time. At this point, the terrorists may attempt to prove they mean business, perhaps by killing a hostage and imposing time limits, if that has not already been done. The government continues to stall for time, if possible, even as it continues to explore the feasibility of using force.

The government also tries to take advantage of the so-called Stockholm syndrome–the tendency for captors and prisoners to identify with each other as time passes. This growing closeness makes it less likely that the terrorists will carry out threats to destroy the hostages if their demands are not met.

These events usually end with the government either using force or conceding to one or more of the demands of the terrorists. The concessions may be made in public or behind the scenes, giving the terrorists what they want without making the government lose more face than is absolutely necessary.

One reason terrorist incidents are so heavily scripted is that both sides like being able to predict, within reason, what will happen. It is when such predictability is not possible that disasters occur, such as the “liberating assault” on the EgyptAir jet, an action that resulted in at least 57 deaths.

A government’s interest in predictability is obvious, but terrorists are equally interested in predictability. Just as a theater company wants to present an event that is stimulating without being so bizarre and repulsive that it causes the show to be shut down, political terrorists want to create a stir and attract attention without inviting massive retaliation by the government.

As any theater buff can tell you, knowing the inevitable outcome of a play in no way detracts from audience involvement or appeal; if anything, predictability heightens anticipation and involvement. From the target government’s point of view, scripting increases predictability and thus takes some of the destructive punch out of the terrorist production. Therefore, it makes sense to increase scripting by encouraging both sides to tacitly agree to a routine set of moves–signals that let the other side know in advance what is meant.

This analysis suggests that promises of rewards for the capture of terrorists (of the sort issued by the Reagan administration last November in the wake of the Achille Lauro hijacking) are likely to be both ineffectual and undesirable: ineffectual because the terrorist theater is likely to continue despite the availability of bounty and undesirable because such promises undercut the possibility of subrosa agreements between the two sides. Such agreements provide each side with greater scripting of the sort that it wants–terrorist access to an audience and governmental protection from terrorist violence.

The terrorism-theater metaphor works on a variety of levels, from audiences to actors to scripts. But the true test of any metaphor lies in the ideas it generates. Increased scripting is one example. Another suggestion that follows from our metaphor is that terrorist drama has an underlying theme. Too often it is assumed that terrorists and their parent organizations mean what they say and nothing more than that. The challenge is to move beyond the performance–what terrorists say they want–to determine what they really want. Or, as Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School put it in their discussion of methods of negotiation, to move from positions to interests.

This movement doesn’t guarantee that a dispute will be settled, but it often helps. Whether the dispute involves a divorcing couple trying to come to an amicable settlement, two nations trying to settle an argument or labor and management negotiating a contract, it is useful to distinguish positions from interests and then move from the former to the latter.

How does one do this? By learning to listen between the lines and by proceeding from the assumption that what terrorists really want is an opportunity to be heard rather than blind adherence to a set of demands.

This works better than simply responding to the latest set of demands because even when positions are diametrically opposed, underlying interests often are not. A demand for the release of political prisoners in exchange for civilian hostages may be irreconcilable with a governmental policy against negotiating with terrorists. But the underlying interests of each side (such as terrorist desire to be recognized as the official representative of a beleaguered minority or government desire to reduce its vulnerability to extortion tactics) may not be inconsistent at all. Addressing these interests directly may increase the chances of reaching a settlement that brings the desired benefits to both sides.

If terrorists want attention, recognition and some sense of legitimacy, and if a government wants security from violent attack, then each wants something the other is uniquely positioned to offer. Terrorists can reduce their use of violence while the government gradually confers legitimacy. If the dramatic theme of a terrorist performance is “protest against injustice,” then government negotiators might be able to acknowledge their sympathy and shared concern with the issue; injustice is a shared problem that invites shared attention. Moreover, one side’s terrorist may be the other side’s hero, visionary or martyr.

One danger in negotiating with terrorists is the loss of face, but this usually can be avoided by moving negotiations out of the limelight into some darkened corner of the theater where neither side is in danger of being made a fool of in the eyes of the audience. Patience and restraint on the part of the media can be enormously helpful in this regard, while too aggressive coverage can sabotage such face-saving arrangements.

Such behind-the-scenes maneuvering by French attorney Christian Bourguet and Argentine businessman Hector Villalon during the Iranian hostage crisis several years ago helped the United States and Iran to reach an agreement with reduced loss of face. Similarly, during the TWA hijacking incident in Athens, Syrian President Hafez Assad moved the negotiations off the television screens and front pages and provided a face-saving formula that called for Israel to release political prisoners–but only after the TWA passengers had been released.

Keeping negotiations offstage not only helps save face, it deprives the terrorists of their audience. Another way to do this would be to simply outlaw the reporting of terrorist incidents until they are concluded. If terrorists know in advance that a planned action will go unnoticed because of a government ban on news coverage, they should find the prospect of a terrorist takeover less appealing.

This approach presents several problems, however. Aside from violating freedom of the press, such restrictions might incite terrorists to even deadlier actions to coerce audience attention. If a letter bomb or a school bus hijacking won’t get into the press, how about a massive program to poison a city’s water supply?

While the government can’t easily get the audience to disappear by eliminating media coverage, it may be possible to take advantage of the media’s unique position in another way. Being external to the dispute, news organizations may be able to intervene, identify issues and move the opposing parties toward settlement.

News organizations are already involved in most terrorist situations, if for no other reason than the desire to gather as much information as possible. Moreover, as the object of considerable interest among terrorist organizations, the media are in a position to extract concessions from terrorists in exchange for access to the public. As controllers of audience attention, the news media may be able to serve as reasonably trustworthy go-betweens, representing the interests of both terrorists and government as well as themselves.

While it is unreasonable to ask members of the media to risk their lives, we think it is reasonable to explore the usefulness of any role they could assume. Given their enormous importance and responsibility as reporters and interpreters of facts, it makes sense to enlist their assistance in understanding the underlying interests of both sides.

Governments should also try to reduce the destructiveness of terrorism by making it clear that a less dramatic performance will suffice to get the desired audience attention. Cameo appearances, for example, might be invited or encouraged as a substitute for full-scale productions. Imagine that Yasir Arafat or George Habash were to be invited to meet the press on Israeli television to express their views on what they consider to be political reality in the Middle East. Such an arrangement would provide these actors with the element of legitimacy they seek and would air issues without resorting to anything more violent than the savagery of the Israeli news media.

Governments could further encourage nonviolence by pointing out that repeated violence risks both audience apathy and severe government retaliation. The best way of sustaining audience attention may be by staging modest, nonviolent productions every now and then–perhaps with the silent partnership of the government itself. The government’s message might go something like this: “Let us know when you are in need of audience attention, and let us help set a stage that can give you access to an audience without resorting to bloodshed. We guarantee a full house of interested observers if you guarantee an act that takes the terror out of terrorism.”

Terrorists and terrorism have been around for many years and are likely to be with us as long as there are groups who consider themselves disenfranchised and want attention. In thinking about ways of negotiating with terrorists, therefore, we must assume that terrorism is largely inevitable.

Both terrorist organizations and governments must work to understand better the interests they share. And both must work to place their relations in the context of an ongoing drama that is likely to be around even longer than My Fair Lady and A Chorus Line combined. If they do, both sides should be more effective at meeting their underlying needs: attention and audience exposure for terrorists; decreased destructiveness for governments.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group