Goodness armed with power: lessons from other democracies for the U.S. war on terrorism

Ernest Evans

Goodness, armed with

Power, is corrupted;

And pure love without

Power is destroyed.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy

In January 1919, the newly established Weimar Republic was faced with a terrible crisis. Specifically, the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party, the Spartacists (who were in the process of becoming the German Communist Party), had staged an insurrection in Berlin with the intent of taking total political power along the lines of the Bolsheviks in Russia. The president of Weimar, Frederich Ebert, asked his minister of defense, Gustave Noske, to take charge of putting down the uprising. Noske replied, “I don’t mind. Someone must play the bloodhound. I will not shirk the responsibility.” (1) Noske left Berlin, rallied loyal troops, and returned to crush the Spartacists.

Gustav Noske’s response to Ebert’s request dramatically illustrates a key aspect of any democratic government’s struggle against violent revolutionaries intent on the government’s destruction: Fighting violent extremists is a most unpleasant and painful experience for democratic governments for the simple reason that such extremists use “the best side” of democratic societies, namely their political freedoms and spirit of tolerance, as weapons to destroy them. Yet democratic governments must do their best to “square the circle” of simultaneously protecting their citizens from violence and protecting the rights of these citizens, because a failure to respond to revolutionary violence would result in “pure love without power” being destroyed.

This dilemma of “squaring the circle” has confronted the United States since the terrible events of September 11, 2001. The United States is faced with radical groups that regard it as “the Great Satan” to be destroyed, and there is no alternative for the United States but to start fighting back the way the heroic passengers and crew did on Flight 93 on September 11. The war on terrorism promises to be a prolonged and costly struggle, so as it undertakes this war that was thrust on it, the United States would do well to study the hard-learned lessons of other democratic nations that have fought terrorist organizations. In this article, I will examine the experiences of the following democratic governments with terrorism:

1) Israel and the Palestinians, 1965-present.

2) Great Britain and the Provisional IRA, 1969-present.

3) Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers, 1983-present.

4) Venezuela and the Venezuelan Communist Party, 1958-63.

5) Peru and Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso), 1980-present.

6) Uruguay and the Tupamaros, 1965-72.

In comparing the different national experiences with terrorism, there will be a focus on four issue areas: first, the maintenance of governmental legitimacy; second, the legal questions involved in fighting terrorism; third, the relationship between military and police forces; and fourth, issues of international cooperation.

With respect to the issue of legitimacy, democratic governments fighting terrorist organizations must be widely perceived as performing the proper and legitimate function of protecting their civilians from random acts of violence. The record of recent decades is emphatic on this point: Where a democratic government is perceived in this way by all major groups in the population, especially the “target audience” of the terrorist group, the terrorists are defeated by the government. In Japan, Germany, and Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, the governments maintained their legitimacy by refusing to respond to deliberately provocative acts of terrorism with brutal repressive measures. Similarly, in Venezuela in the period 1958-63, the government of Romulo Betancourt defused the charges of the Venezuelan Communist Party that it was a puppet of the United States and local wealthy elites by holding scheduled elections in December 1963 despite a Communist-initiated terrorist campaign. In Peru’s struggle against Sendero Luminoso since 1980, it has been simultaneously enduring the Great Depression, the Civil War, and Prohibition (to put it in terms of U.S. historical experiences). The government has survived despite human rights violations and the high-handedness of former president Alberto Fujimoro, because the population has consistently viewed Sendero, not the authorities, as the major threat to life and property. (2)

In contrast, democratic governments start losing their struggles with terrorists when the terrorists are able to convince their target population that the authorities’ counterterrorist campaign is really intended to victimize them under the pretense of fighting terrorism. For example, in the case of Northern Ireland, the Catholic population, after initially welcoming the arrival of British troops in 1969, soon began to see the British Army as an army of occupation rather than as an army of liberation, thereby giving the Provisional IRA the base of popular support it needed to launch a terrorist campaign. Likewise, to the Palestinian population of the occupied territories, Israel’s counterterrorist efforts are seen as a smoke-screen to hide its long-term goal of annexing these territories. In Spain and Sri Lanka, the minority populations of Basques and Tamils see the real aim of the governmental side as forcible assimilation.

Taking these points into account, there is a clear lesson for the United States: The “target audience” of the key anti-American terrorist groups is the population of the Islamic world. These radical Islamic groups are claiming that the U.S. war on terrorism is really a war on Islam as a religion. The United States must take great care to ensure that these radicals do not so convince their intended audience, because if they do, the world will witness a very bloody clash of civilizations between America and the world of Islam. (3)

The second set of issues concerning the war on terrorism are some quite knotty legal questions: detention without trial, execution of captured terrorists, and torture. Detaining suspected terrorists without trial is a practice that democracies should use as carefully and sparingly as possible. The reason is simple: the detained individuals will likely be disproportionately from that population to which the terrorists are hoping to appeal, which can convince this population that the governmental side’s real purpose is to oppress them–a disastrous result. For example, the British decision in 1971 to intern suspected IRA members without trial led to an explosion of anger in Northern Ireland’s Catholic community; the year that followed was the most violent year of the post-1969 troubles. (4) Furthermore, public anger over an initial detention can be compounded if detainees can claim that, because they were not given a trial, they are political prisoners rather than ordinary criminals. Again, the British experience with the IRA is instructive: the 1981 hunger strike by imprisoned IRA members, in which some ten hunger strikers died, created a political firestorm within Northern Ireland’s Catholic population and brought pressure on the British government.

Next, there is the emotional issue of executing captured terrorists. Given the horrific nature of terrorist violence, public demands for the execution of those responsible are all too understandable. However, such demands are unwise because executing terrorists often makes martyrs of those executed, thereby increasing public support for the terrorist cause. For instance, the Easter 1916 uprising in Dublin by the IRA initially generated little public support. But when the British government executed six of the leaders of the revolt, the Irish public was infuriated enough to start lending their support to the IRA in its 1918-21 guerrilla campaign–a campaign that resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. (Particularly infuriating to Irish public opinion was the execution of rebel leader James Connolly. Connolly had been so badly wounded in the uprising that special medical attention was required so that he would survive to die before a firing squad; he was carried to his execution in a chair.)

The 1967 execution of Che Guevara in Bolivia similarly resulted in Guevara becoming a martyr. The thirtieth anniversary of Guevara’s execution was in 1997, and all over Latin America during that year, one saw many people, particularly the young people who are frequently attracted to revolutionary movements, wearing Che Guevara memorabilia. Contrast Guevara’s continuing appeal to many Latin American young people with the leader of Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, Abimael Guzman: Eleven years after his capture in 1992, Guzman is a forgotten individual in a Peruvian prison. Unless the Peruvian authorities make the mistake of killing Guzman while he is in prison, one can be quite sure that thirty years from now, millions of young Latin Americans will not be wearing Guzman memorabilia.

Finally, at the time of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-91, there were a number of proposals that the United States capture and execute Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. With respect to these proposals, a good friend of the United States, former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, gave some sage advice: during an interview during the first Gulf War, Bhutto warned the United States that, given the long tradition of martyrdom in the Islamic world, Saddam Hussein dead could be a greater threat to America than Saddam Hussein alive.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the error of executing captured terrorists is to recall a statement that Napoleon’s foreign minister Talleyrand made after Napoleon ordered the execution of a young duke of the Bourbon family: “Sire, it is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.” (5) Leaving aside for the moment the moral issues involved in capital punishment, there can be little doubt that executing captured terrorists does not help democratic governments in their struggle with terrorism.

The issue of torturing captured terrorists is even more painful and emotional than the issue of executing them. Despite the controversy, however, this issue must be raised because of the widespread theory that in some circumstances captured terrorists can be tortured to extract intelligence information; even well-known human rights advocate and Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz has said that in some circumstances torture may be justified.

Hollywood delights in “disaster” films, and a standard scenario in several recent productions has been a situation in which a weapon of mass destruction has been placed in a major U.S. city with only limited time to neutralize this weapon; to a public frightened by such all-too-realistic scenarios, it may seem reasonable that terrorists be tortured. However, although one can always imagine extreme scenarios that could justify torture, it would most definitely be a mistake to use such extreme scenarios to justify the routine use of torture; as the old legal aphorism goes, “Extreme cases make bad law.”

The routine use of torture by democratic governments is a mistake because of the effect that such use has on these nations’ military and police forces. Specifically, when security forces are allowed to freely violate national and international legal codes, the result is what can be called the Serpico Syndrome. Frank Serpico was a New York City police officer who refused to accept bribes at a time of rampant corruption in the NYPD. What happened in the case of Serpico and other honest NYPD officers was a form of Gresham’s Law: “Bad cops drive out good cops.” The possibility of personal financial enrichment attracted the wrong sort of individuals to the NYPD, and once on the force, these dishonest cops saw people like Serpico as a threat and sought to drive them out of the department.

The way that this Serpico Syndrome plays itself out with respect to the issue of torture is starkly illustrated by the experiences of the French military during the Algerian War of 1954-62. In a desperate effort to defeat the National Liberation Front (FLN), the French government authorized its military to use torture. As a result, the elite units of the French military, such as the paratroopers and the foreign legion, quickly became a haven for an unsavory collection of thugs and psychopaths. Not surprisingly, this unpleasant collection of misfits soon proved to be of limited utility in the prosecution of the war.

Put differently, a democratic government that allows its security forces to engage in torture is signing the death warrant of these forces; as I said recently to a class of officers at Fort Leavenworth, “[s]uch a military will soon have Ted Bundy as chief of staff and Hannibal Lecter in charge of the mess hall.”

The third issue to be analyzed is the relationship between military and police forces in the counterterrorist campaign of democratic nations. Again, a clear pattern emerges: the involvement of militaries in a policing role is counterproductive to fighting terrorism in democratic societies. Democratic governments that have successfully defeated terrorist organizations, such as the governments of Italy, Germany, Japan, Peru, and Venezuela, invariably assigned primary responsibility for combating terrorism to their police forces; in all of these cases, the military, if used at all, was used solely in a supportive role.

In contrast, countries that have used their militaries in a policing role, such as Great Britain in the Northern Ireland conflict, Israel in the occupied territories, and Sri Lanka in its struggle with the Tamil Tigers, have quickly found themselves in a Catch-22-type situation. These militaries are invariably brought in initially on the assumption that they will be present only briefly to restore order and that they will then return responsibility to the police. The problem is that militaries are such blunt instruments that their deployment invariably inflames the feelings of the local minority population to the point that the military cannot be withdrawn because the level of violence is too large for the police to handle.

I write this article in July 2003 against a backdrop of daily reports of shootouts between U.S. troops and terrorists in Iraq. The U.S. military appears to be marching down the same road that the British military trod in Northern Ireland in 1969-71; what was initially regarded by most Iraqis as an army of liberation is increasingly being seen as an army of occupation. The U.S. military is a superb war-fighting military; the problem is that war-fighting militaries are seldom, if ever, good peacekeeping militaries. In Iraq, the United States would be well advised to move as quickly as possible to get its soldiers out of a policing role both by creating new local police forces and by involving the militaries of countries such as Canada, Italy, and the Scandinavian countries, all of which have far more experience in peacekeeping operations.

One final point about democracies using their militaries in a policing role: a democratic government that gives its military a “blank check” to do whatever it feels is required to defeat terrorism is signing its own death warrant. Soldiers are not stupid; they know perfectly well that the democratic politician who says, “Do what you have to, but do not worry; I’ll stand by you” and who really does “stand by them” when the inevitable controversy erupts is about as mythical a being as the Communist dictator who comes to power promising free elections “once calm has been restored” and who then actually holds free elections. So, when the democratic government of France in 1957 gave its military a “blank check” to end terrorism in Algiers, it was not surprising that the French military overthrew the Fourth Republic in 1958. (6) The same scenario played itself out in Uruguay’s war with the Tupamaros. In spring 1972, the democratic government gave the military a “blank check” to crush the Tupamaros; a year later, the military overthrew the government. (7)

Regarding the question of international cooperation against terrorism, the United States is currently embroiled in a major debate over whether it is pursuing too much of a “go-it-alone” approach in its foreign policy. Whatever the merits of multilateral approaches to issues of trade, the environment, world health, national defense, and so on, there can be no doubt that in fighting terrorism, a broad level of international cooperation is needed if the world is to win the war on terrorism. For example, in the conflict in Northern Ireland, cooperation between the governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland has been an essential factor in the reduction of violence in Northern Ireland from the quite high levels of the early 1970s. In Spain’s struggle with the ETA, much progress was made when, after Franco’s death and Spain’s subsequent democratization, the government of France began active cooperation with the Spanish authorities. Even countries with poor relations such as the United States and Cuba can engage in constructive cooperation on terrorism, as they demonstrated in the 1970s when they signed various agreements on airplane hijacking.

Israel is the extreme case of how international isolation can hamstring a democratic nation’s struggle with terrorism. Israel’s international isolation is not its own fault; some of its most determined opponents also are the largest producers of oil. (There is a saying that I have heard from Israelis: “Israel has many friends in the world, but they do not speak out because their throats are choked with oil.”) However, although Israel’s international isolation is largely because of factors beyond its control, there can be no doubt that the reluctance of many other countries to help it in its war against terrorism severely hurts its counterterrorist efforts.

In conclusion, an unconventional war such as the ongoing U.S. war on terrorism promises to be drawn-out, costly, and lacking in clear and decisive victories. But the United States has no alternative but to fight this war if it is to survive as a nation. In this protracted conflict, there is a great deal that other nations’ experiences have to teach the United States.


(1.) Gorden A. Craig, The Politics of the Prussian Army, 1640-1945 (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 257-60.

(2.) For a discussion of Shining Path in Peru, see Cynthia McClintock, Revolutionary Movements in Latin America: El Salvador’s FMLN and Peru’s Shining Path (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1998).

(3.) Samuel Huntington’s thesis about the clash of civilizations is put forward in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

(4.) For an evaluation of the impact of internment on the conflict in Northern Ireland, see J. Bowyer Bell, The Irish Troubles: A Generation of Conflict, 1967-1992 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 215-48.

(5.) In March 1804, Napoleon, after having heard erroneous reports that Bourbon Duke Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Cande was part of a plot to overthrow him, had the duke summarily executed. Napoleon received much criticism at home and abroad for having executed an innocent man.

(6.) For a discussion of French strategy and tactics during the fighting in the city of Algiers in 1957, see “The Battle of Algiers,” in Alistair Home, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954–1962 (New York: Penguin Books, 1977).

(7.) For an analysis of the Tupanaros in Uruguay, see James A. Miller, “Urban Terrorism in Uruguay: The Tupanaros,” in Insurgency in the Modern World, ed. Brad O’Neill, William R. Heaton, and Donald J. Alberts (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1980).

Ernest Evans teaches political science at Kansas City, Kansas Community College.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Heldref Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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