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7th October 2001
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Thoughs from LondonTerrorism beyond poverty

For all the tragedy that September 11 evokes, the terrorist attack on the United States had one salutary effect. For the first time, the entire world was immediately awakened to the dangers of lurking terrorism and its destructive potential.

Amidst the personal tragedies that so many deaths brought to people from several countries, the collective mind began to reflect on the subject of terrorism. If one common question gnawed at the minds, it was whether anybody is really safe from terrorism. 

Men make their own history, wrote Karl Marx in the Theses on Feuerback, but in circumstances which are not of their own choosing.

Nothing would have pushed George W. Bush to the international centrestage so dramatically and so suddenly, had terrorism not heaped such devastation and ignominy on the world's foremost power.

Admittedly, as the president of the only super power, Mr. Bush would have been at centrestage at some point of time. Perhaps, during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai this month followed by his first state visit to China.

There would be a crucial meeting with President Jiang Zeming, especially since President Bush appears determined to pursue his National Missile Defence (NMD) programme which China believes is aimed at it. 

But from the start, Mr. Bush has been a tainted president, his presidential legitimacy in some doubt. Moreover, with a brand new team, it would have taken him time to formulate and evolve policies to earn him a place as a responsible president of the world's most powerful country.

Yet in a few minutes Osama bin Laden, if it was he, changed all that. Terrorists proved to a shocked world that even the most powerful nation on this planet was vulnerable to sudden and unsuspecting attack. That, as long as there are individuals ready to commit the ultimate sacrifice die for a cause however illegitimate or unacceptable to most it might be and kill innocents without compunction, it is virtually unstoppable.

So Mr. Bush, whose election itself is at least morally questionable, found himself the moral standard bearer of a crusade to wipe out global terrorism, just as much as President J. R. Jayewardene undertook to do on a very much smaller scale in the northern Jaffna peninsula.

The other day a journalist colleague told me that we should stop using the word terrorism? Why? Is it because there is no such thing as terrorism, because it is politically incorrect to judge the actions of people who fight for their causes ethnic, religious or political by targeting the innocent civilians and non-combatants?

The hypocrisy of some of these semantically squeamish do-gooders and their violence-prone associates lies exposed when their own civilians are killed or maimed, by accident or design.

Then the whole world of NGO activists howl in protest against the attacks on civilians and over human rights violations, as though only one side to a conflict is entitled to such rights while the civilian non-combatants on the other must perforce suffer without any such entitlements.

This post-September 11 awakening emotional and intellectual has led to widespread discussion in political and academic circles, in newspapers and television with talking heads dragged out of every nook and cranny to add still more ideas to a debate which quite often has been intellectually stifling and at others, appeared to be what the French call a dialogue of the deaf.

One idea that has surfaced is that terrorism is the result of poverty. Those who have studied the origins and history of terrorism might wonder at this conclusion. Take some of the original acts of terrorism committed by groups such as Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, the Japanese Red Army, the Italian Red Brigades and the spectrum of organisations that operated in the Middle East.

They were not motivated by poverty. The European groups such as Baader-Meinhof were essentially anarchists who were interested in kidnapping or killing wealthy industrialists and bankers in the hope earning large ransoms and sowing fear in ruling circles. They were least interested in alleviating poverty (unless it was their own) and in any case, when they were active, Germany was enjoying its best economic years after the recovery under Conrad Adenauer.

The Japanese Red Army was more politically-oriented and set themselves up to fight what it perceived as the rise of the Japanese right and Japanese nationalism.

Even the various Middle Eastern groups from that of Abu Nidal to that of George Habash were solely concerned with drawing attention and more dramatically the better to the plight of the Palestinian people. It was not the poverty of the Palestinians that was foremost in the minds but the international neglect of the Palestinian cause even by conservative Arab nations.

When the international terrorist Carlos masterminded the attack on the OPEC oil ministers in Vienna, it was not to ask them for a fistful of dollars to buy food for the Palestinians, but shock the world and particularly draw the attention of the conservative Arab ministers to the Palestinian cause and where their loyalties should lie.

Poverty might give rise to revolutionary ideologies as Marx preached, but these emerge as political movements determined to capture power in some way to impose their ideologies on the masses.

But they must be distinguished from movements that use and legitimise terror or the threat of terror against civilian population rather than agents and agencies of the state.

The Tamil militant movements in the north emerged in the early 1970s not as western media and propagandists would like to benchmark it as post-July 1983 when the Jaffna economy was doing extremely well and the northern farmers were making more money than they had before.

Terrorism occurs not because of poverty but when people in power ignore the concerns and the pleas of ethnic and religious communities, when they are made to appear like the wretched of the earth and when years of indifference begin to sear their minds with hate against those who dominate and domineer them.

When people lose hope and faith in their future, it breeds terrorism.

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