Terrorism is a tactic

 In Communication, Leadership

When is the right time to raise this?

It is two days after three men crashed a van into a London crowd and then set about indiscriminately stabbing as many people as they could before being shot and killed themselves.

As hard as it is to adequately describe their actions – abominable, repugnant, viciously brutal and savage – it is impossible to quantify the impact.  For those slain and injured, their families and friends, the people who narrowly avoided physical harm, those who feel responsible for the protection of the community, and the community itself, there will be a spectrum of devastation, shock and loss; impossible to truly and accurately reconcile.

That’s how terrorism works.

While this is not the time for clever wordplay, nor vying for most accurate assessment of the killers’ cruelty or the harm they have done, it must be time for renewed analysis, dialogue and planning to protect people and the way of life that we hold dear.

To do this successfully, the words we chose are important.

Terrorism is a tactic.  It is not a people.  It is not a nation.  It is not a way of life or an ideology.  It is something that people resort to in order to inflict damage, physical and predominantly psychological damage, onto their enemy.

Elevating terrorism to the rank of an ideology is a perversion; a delusion of the terrorist and the labeller alike.  Fundamentally, is it the means to an end.

It is a tactic.

This is an important distinction because it provides a shroud of anonymity to the perpetrator.  If you don’t know who your enemy is, how do you take steps to protect yourself?  How can you defeat them?  How can you avoid many enemies of potential friends and allies?  How can you know them if you can’t name them?

When George W. Bush declared War on Terror in September 2001, the speech included references to the heartening global response to the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre, respect for Muslim faith and identification of Al Qaeda as fringe extremists.  Then President Bush stopped referring to “Al Qaeda” and began referring to the “terrorists”.  It is the terrorists who are the enemy; thousands of terrorists in over 60 countries, terrorists who are directed to kill Christians and Jews, all Americans and make no distinction between the military and woman and children.  He described how America and its allies would starve the terrorists, pursue and eliminate them.  And he sought in enlist the world in this campaign; “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

At the time, even in the post 9/11 shock, I was alarmed by how vague and imprecise was this description of our enemy.  If we cannot accurately identify our enemy, how can we effectively target them?  If we define our enemy by the last tactic they employed, what happens when they change tactics?  What happens when other people use the same tactics from a different geography or ideology?  The first wave of attacks in the second Iraq war were dubbed “Shock and Awe”.  Was that not a version of terrorism?  And what happens when a self-serving totalitarian regime labels opposition forces “terrorists”, thereby validating any manner of repressive actions against this group?

In 2001, I thought that identifying an enemy by referring to a particular, albeit, abhorrent tactic, was misleading and dangerous.

The satirists waved the flag of derision for a time.  The Chaser’s War on Everything had an undergraduate dig at the nonsense. They have since moved onto consumer rights and litter.   We smiled at references to Barnaby Joyce’s War on Terrier as the deputy Prime Minister put Johnny Depp in his place.

But the idea of the War on Terror, as misleading and dangerous as it is, has largely won the battle in mainstream media.  “Terror” and “Terrorist” are easy shorthand for headlines.  One must dig deeper to piece together the detail on who the perpetrator was; what was their nationality, their ideology, their influences, their reasons?  The unknowns flame the fears that we are dealing with a wholly unpredictable and indiscriminate enemy.  The people who planned these attacks must be thrilled.

In bombing campaigns of the IRA, the headlines made it clear who was responsible from the beginning.  Today’s media struggle with identifying the enemy.  In some cases, there may an aversion to pointing the finger indiscriminately towards Islam.  In many cases, in the days following attacks, they just don’t know who is was.  It is possible that the ambient scaring of the pubic has commercial advantages?   Whatever the motive, the vague and imprecise labelling of these events as simply acts of terrorism does nothing to keep future men, women and children safer.

If we know where the people who commit acts of terror come from, how they are chosen, inducted, dehumanised and directed, then targeted interventions can be supported.  Certainly, there are many insightful and evidence-driven initiatives in place.  We will never know how many lives have been saved through education, relief from poverty and restoration of social justice in unsung corners of the world; instances where individual kindness and humanity have changed the outlook of another individual.  The stories that capture global attention are when a few human beings are transformed into weapons.  All one needs is a motor vehicle, a knife and a death wish and it is possible to make the front pages.

Some national governments are winning popularity at home by cutting foreign aid.  Are we certain that this is in the best interests of future generations?

The Australian Government has sought to enlist all Australians in the protection of our people and our nation.  This is about noticing and reporting suspicious behaviour.  I am happy to say I am up for civilian action in the defence of the nation.  In our democracy, we also have an opportunity to contribute to the election of the government we believe will keep us safe.  It is therefore of significant importance that, as much as is possible, we know what the threats are, so we can support those with policies that will address those threats.

For those who genuinely wish to contribute to the effort to protecting freedom, it is possible to look beyond the headlines and seek insight from people who are expert on the people who resort to terrorism to achieve their aims and the environments in which they are cultivated.  We can gain insight from people who are expert on how to extinguish the motivation to use terrorist tactics.  I do not claim to be one of those experts, but there is plenty of discourse available in long form media.  Some experts look through the lens of economics.  Others from the perspective of history and political science.  At a time when science is under attack from popularist politicians and pundits, the human sciences, that help us to understand and predict the tides in human ecology, must be respected, consulted and resourced.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

An approach that considers the problem from many angles must be more effective than one that suffers from partial blindness.  The caveat here is that the investigation must not end in paralysis.  Urgent action must be taken at every point in the system, and this is where I would like to see more effective leadership in the arena; focus on the right questions, ensure those questions are well answered and corrective, effective action is taken.  We can not focus on the right questions unless someone steps up and names the problem.

Islamic State have claimed responsibility for the June 3rd attack in London, so in this incident, the target has narrowed, albeit it marginally.  Clearly a precise appraisal of IS as they are now, who is organising and where they are operating, is required to separate these extremist Islamic ideologues from the rest of Muslim population.  To lump all Muslims into a single category serves no one other than the people behind IS.

Let us call an end to the war on terrorism, and focus our attention on the people who are committing these crimes, the ideologies that give license to them and the regimes who are profiting from the havoc they create.  Let us give our experts the resources and the platforms to help us all understand the truth.  Given the information we have, let us name them, and then deal with the consequences. If it’s not an accurate description, we should expect to be corrected.  When more information comes to light, we adapt, but all the while, we must hold an unswerving commitment to eliminating the real threat.

What is the cost of getting this wrong?


David McCubbin
Corporate Dramatist, Communication and Collaboration Coach
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