The current conservative-liberal debate on terrorism focuses on whether we should treat the 9-11 terrorist attacks as an act of war or a crime. One key difference between the two interpretations can be seen in the scale of the response. When a government regards terrorism as an act of war, there is massive retaliation that results in great collateral damage. On the other hand, when a government treats terrorist attacks as crimes, its response tends to be precise in order to reduce collateral damage.
Another significant difference between the two approaches has to do with emotional issues. For those who see the 9-11 terrorist attacks as an act of war, their anger is so great that they can only see the perpetrators as just being evil. On the other hand, those who view 9-11 and other terrorist attacks as crimes are better able to look at the context of terrorism and consider that the terrorists might also have legitimate grievances.
At the heart of our analysis of terrorism is which logical operator to employ. There are those who employ the XOR(exclusive or) operator which says that terrorists can either be immoral or have legitimate grievances but not both. Those who view terrorist attacks as crimes employ conjunction by saying that terrorism can be both immoral and a retaliation for past suffering.
How can the Foley scandal shed light on our understanding of terrorism? If we see terrorism as an extreme form of abuse, we have a necessary tool to both understand terrorism and overcome the emotional objections of those who cannot accept the possibility that terrorists can have legitimate grievances. Why? We should note that Representative Foley has reported that he himself was sexually abused when he was young. And though we recognize that his past experiences with being abused could contribute to his current abusive behavior, no one excuses his abusive behavior.
Thus, our understanding of abuse provides a better model for understanding terrorism than viewing terrorism as an act of war or a crime. That is because when viewing terrorism as a type of abuse, we are more willing to face the causes of terrorism--even if some of those causes implicate ourselves--without minimizing the accountability of the terrorists.
At this point, it would be helpful to review some of the causes of abuse. Causes of abuse include economic problems, past abuse, the presence of condoned violence, a lack of resources, isolation, crises, and unmet needs. What can these causes of abuse tell us about what we can expect from our War on Terror?
What results can we expect when we invade other countries and cause both massive collateral damage and loss of civilian life? What results can we expect when we or an ally perform economic blockades of democratic governments because we do not like the peoples' choices of leaders? What results can we expect when an ally retaliates for the loss of a few soldiers by taking the lives of 1,000 civilians? What results can we expect when an ally destroys the infrastructure of neighboring governments it disapproves of?
The results are not hard to see. The Taliban is gaining support from the people in Afghanistan. The majority of Iraqis support the insurgency's attacks on American troops. Hezbollah has become more popular in both Lebanon and the region. Hamas is now considering resuming suicide attacks against Israel. And worldwide, the number of both terrorist recruits and attacks has increased since our invasion of Iraq.
Should we be surprised at these results? Look at how Israel's past has affected their treatment of the Palestinians and Lebanese. Look at how 9-11 has changed our willingness to go to war. If violence against us makes us more willing to respond with violence, will the victims of our aggression be any different?
If what we know about abuse applies to terrorism, we see that past abuse and violence leads to future atrocities. Certainly, terrorism must be confronted. But this moral standard should not blind us to the factors that result in higher incidences of terrorism. Thus, we have at least a partial list of what actions to avoid and situations to correct if we really wish to end this current cycle of terrorism. And it would be really neat to end this cycle of terrorism before proliferation arrives.