Terrorism and Fear of Terrorism

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One of the greatest threats to democratic societies is terrorism. Terrorist acts kill people and make people afraid to go about their daily business and express themselves freely.

The dilemma for democracies

The threat to democracy itself is not diminished by the fact that many democratic states, in order to protect themselves against terror, are about to take measures which directly undermine democratic rights and freedoms. This applies, for example, in relation to surveillance, the inviolability of the home, censorship and the ability to arrest and convict people for something they have not yet done, or even keep them locked up indefinitely without trial at all. A law adopted in the USA in December 2011 has now made this possible if it is suspected that the people involved are linked to terrorist groups.

In other words, terrorism puts democracies in a dilemma: Can democratic society be defended without resorting to undemocratic methods and thereby undermining the very democracy we are trying to protect?

There is no simple answer to this dilemma.

A misunderstanding of the problem

One of the problems in the fight against terrorism is that both the terror and the struggle against it have largely been defined by the traditional concepts of war. Just the fact that it has been called "the war on terror" shows how narrowly and erroneously the problem and its possible solution has been defined. "Terrorism" is a form of conflict like "war" and you don't win the "war on war" by waging war. You win it through politics.

Contemporary as well as previous terrorism is rooted in a complex of issues involving emotions, culture, economy, oil, frustration, identity, hope, ideology, failed foreign policy, images of the enemy, religious ideas and stupid boundaries drawn by colonial powers, as well as the more traditional ideas involving the takeover of power by one means or another. However, this last factor plays a very minor role. Whereas traditional military strategy and war thinking has been the conquering of land and the subjugation of the people, terror aims to overthrow a social order and replace it with a new one. Whether the new social order is Anarchism, Islamism, Communism or some other "ism", it doesn't change the fact that democracy is not up against a military enemy but an ideological one, and it must be fought as such.

Just how difficult that can be could be seen in the USA during the Cold War. In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy launched an intensive witch hunt for all those who could be seen to have even the slightest connection with communism. This led to serious violations of American citizens' protection under the law, and several intellectuals and artists of various kinds had their lives and careers ruined for ever.

Terrorism is one of the biggest threats at the moment but if the democracies panic, it only makes matters worse, and panic reactions will in the long run undermine democracy itself.


Next chapter: Censorship