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Terror and counter-terror
A reflection on Hamas and Israel
I want to share a thought about terror and counter-terror, prompted by the Hamas attacks and the dilemmas Israel faces. It is not based on regional knowledge but does draw from scholarly work on the politics of terror and insurgency. It is not so much a take on specific events as a general reminder of the larger shape such events can take.
For the victim, terror is about what it is. For the terrorist, it is about what happens next.
Terror can be a weapon of the weak, designed to get the strong to use their strength against themselves. Terrorists know what they are going to do, and have an idea what will follow. They mean to create an emotional situation where self-destructive action seems like the urgent and only choice.
When you have been terrorized, the argument that I am making seems absurd; the terrorists can seem to you to be raving beasts who just need punishment. Yet however horrible the crime, it usually does not bespeak a lack of planning. Usually part of the plan is to enrage.
Americans have fallen for this. 9/11 was a successful terrorist attack because we made it so. Regardless of whether or not its planners and perpetrators lived to see this, it achieved its main goal: to weaken the United States. Without 9/11, the United States presumably would not have invaded Iraq, a decision which led to the death of tens of thousands of people, helped fund the rise of China, weakened international law, and undid American credibility. 9/11 was a contributing cause to American decisions that caused far more death than 9/11 itself did. But the point here is that 9/11 facilitated American decisions that hurt America far more than 9/11 itself did.
(On 9/13/2001, I dropped my planned lecture on east European history and spoke entirely about terror and counter-terror, along these lines. I was worried, but did not imagine then just how well the provocation would work. The invasion of Iraq was a disaster that arose from many sources; but one of them was the logic of terror — and indeed its exploitation by people who wanted a war in Iraq anyway.)
In evaluating what Hamas has done, it is important to remember that the atrocious crimes are not (or are not only) ends in themselves. They are utterly horrible and deserving of every condemnation, but they are not mindless. Unlike Israelis, who are shocked and feel they must urgently act, Hamas has been working out this scenario for years. The people carrying out the bestial crimes follow a plan that anticipates an Israeli reaction.
Classically, a terrorist provokes a state in order to generate so much suffering among his own people that they will take the terrorist’s side indefinitely.
I won't claim to know what Hamas expects from Israel, nor what Israel should do. That would be a matter for people with the languages and expertise to read and analyze the documents and the data. My point is that it is always worth asking, in such situations, whether you are following the terrorist's script. If what you want to do is what your enemy wants you to do, someone is mistaken. It might be your enemy. But it also might be you.
PS. I am conscious that the cool tone of this thread might seem jarring in the context of human suffering. I regret this.
PPS. I anticipate the objection that Israeli state policy has been designed to provoke Palestinians. I agree that the strong can also terrorize the weak.
PPPS. My work on terror and counter-terror and insurgency and counterinsurgency, in a different period and region, is found in my books Sketches from a Secret War, Reconstruction of Nations, Bloodlands, and Black Earth, and in articles in Past and Present and The Journal of Cold War History.
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