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States cannot negotiate with suicide terrorists

States cannot negotiate with suicide terrorists

Author: Janet Daley
Publication: The Daily Telegraph, UK
Date: October 30, 2002

While the number of dead hostages was climbing on Monday, a Moscow newspaper had a headline that read: "At last, we have something to be proud of". Was it right? On balance, I think, yes.

The consequences of the ending of the Russian theatre siege may have been appalling, but there was never going to be any ending that was not. The decision to use an anaesthetising gas must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Put everybody to sleep and then go in and shoot the terrorists.

It did not seem to occur to the military authorities, or whoever made the tactical decisions, that a general anaesthetic, even on an operating table, is a delicate matter that requires specialised training to administer and careful preparation of the patient if it is to be safe. But it was, after all, a plausible technique fond breaking an intractable situation.

How is any country to deal with this scale of terrorism? Well, I say "any country". In truth, it is the democratic countries that are in real trouble. Totalitarian societies have never had a problem dealing with threats to their stability, whether they are overtly violent or quietly insidious. The state just wipes them out. No questions, no qualms, no ambivalence. Suicidal attacks on the population are scarcely an issue, because any violence against the authorities immediately (or pretty quickly) becomes suicidal.

Foe us, it is all much more difficult. We have incorporated the freedom to dissent into our conception of a legally constituted state. Government itself exists to protect freedom and the basic standards of justice. To pursue and extinguish subversive forces without due process of law would seem to undermine our most basic principles of government.

So what do we do? What should the British Government do if a group of hijackers, declaring themselves eager to embrace death and martyrdom, seize a London theatre audience? Start talking to them, I hear you suggest. Yes, but what about? Well, you ask them what they want and begin a dialogue.

But suppose they say that what they want is an end to the domination of the world by the evil, idolatrous Western countries - which is pretty much what Osama bin Laden's team wants. Where will your negotiations go from there? Do you promise to consider it? Even when the immediate goals of the Islamic fundamentalist hijackers and kidnappers are more limited, they have an apocalyptic, absolutist quality that makes them (perhaps deliberately) non-negotiable.

In the Moscow theatre siege, the terrorists were demanding that Russia withdraw from Chechnya - or else. Quite apart from the political merits of the argument for Chechen independence, what could possibly have been the realistic expectation of the perpetrators? Were they proposing to hold the theatre until the Russian army had withdrawn? Presumably they did not envisage any rational series of steps whereby their requirements could be fulfilled and their position within the political debate somehow normalised.

They were simply demonstrating, with a cosmically theatrical gesture, the desperate lengths to which they were prepared to go for their cause. They had no intention of accomplishing some intermediate reasonable goal in their campaign, or even of being taken alive. They went there, they said, to die in the most spectacular way possible, taking as many members of-the public with them as they could. If there was any logic to their three-day vigil (and it was not just some delusional hysteria) it was intended presumably to persuade the Russian people that they should cut their losses in Chechnya. (As is the way with human nature, it has had quite the opposite effect.)

This latest species of terrorism is in another league even from the last worst category air hijacking, which was, you may remember, very fashionable at one time. That tended to involve demands for named terrorist prisoners to be released and/or that the hijackers be given safe passage to the destination of their choosing. There was something at least recognisably rational to negotiate about.

But once it became clear that negotiation was making hijacking the political stunt of choice for unstable, reckless adventurists, the game had to be stopped. Western countries started storming hijacked planes and overlooking the need to put hijackers on trial before executing them. There were very few airliners taken hostage after that.

But all of that happened before the advent of this new wave of consciously suicidal terror activity. It is a peculiarly wicked and (at least in modern times) unprecedented manipulation of the human psyche that produces so many young people who are not simply prepared to risk death, but who actively seek it. It puts democratic governments to a test that short-circuits all their logical assumptions. If life itself is not worth having, then all political discussion is, fruitless.

That is why this kind of terrorism must not be dignified with political consideration. Whatever proper arguments are to be had about Russia's war in Chechnya or America's role in the Middle East, they are not, and cannot, encompass this form of "protest".

The killing of innocent civilians is not part of any dialogue. Murder is not a political argument. There can be only one answer to people who say, "Give us what we want or we will kill anybody who is unlucky enough to fall into our hands." What should governments do when faced with this? Absolutely anything that it takes, even if it means (God forgive me) losing some innocent lives in the process.

In any but the shortest possible term, the ending of such incidents with all the force that is required is the only way that a free society can defend itself against this threat. Terrorism must end in disaster for the perpetrators. It must not only be futile; it must be counterproductive.

Do the processes of justice sometimes have to be forgone in order to protect life and the freedom to live it? Yes undoubtedly, yes.
 


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