August 22, 2005 | Op-ed

I Never Expected to Know the Face of Terrorism

By: Jason Zorn, 2005 FDD Academic Fellow.

I never expected to know the face of terrorism as anything more than an abstract fear or a shadowy glimpse on the evening news. But expectations, like rules, are made to be broken, and last week I came to know the face: I stood in an Israeli maximum-security prison for terrorists and spoke to a convicted Palestinian bomber.

I was there with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an anti-terror policy group, to ask him about his motivations and learn how to better fight the threat. After a question-and-answer session with our group, I approached a prisoner identified only as Suleiman, the English-speaking engineer-turned terrorist, on my own.

My first impulse was to make my disgust obvious. I held back, however, and tried to take the high road. I said, “Salaam” (meaning peace, in Arabic), and I was surprised to hear him respond with the same.

To each question I posed about killing innocents, he oddly responded with a “scientific” answer rather than one taken from Yasser Arafat or Osama bin Laden: “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” he said. “You can't have war without a reaction.”

Such a rule, I pointed out, may work in physics but not in relations between groups of people in the real world. He disagreed. I told him he was rationalizing away his identity as a terrorist — somebody who murders innocent people to make a political point. He quickly responded that he wasn't a terrorist but a “freedom fighter,” that he was fighting oppression.

This is the most dangerous lie of our times. And it's a lie told over and over by so many throughout the world. Suleiman was not really fighting oppression: The moment he built a bomb and decided to kill innocent people, he became the oppressor himself. You simply can't be an oppressor and a “freedom fighter” at the same time. Terrorism is a method of enslavement, whereas “freedom fighting” is a motive of liberation. There's no way around it.

So long as people believe terrorism is a legitimate way to prove a point, violence will continue. The big question is: How can we get people around the world to stop believing the lie?

It's not easy, but it's doable.

First, we should define terrorism. Before we can effectively argue that terror is never justified, we must be able to say in absolute terms what terrorism is. Right now there are more than 108 definitions, and our own federal government can't agree on one — let alone the United Nations or Arab states. I agree with Boaz Ganor, head of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism based in Israel, when he calls terrorism “the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilians to attain political goals.” If we could get a multitude of countries to agree to a clear definition like this one, we could help millions of people to see the distinction between terror and “freedom fighting.”

Second, we should break the tools of brainwashing. Terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah now operate massive public-welfare programs in addition to their militant activities. In Southern Lebanon for instance, Hezbollah runs kindergartens, hospitals and shelters, often serving as the only “government” people know. This throws millions of otherwise moderate people into the hands of violent radicals. It also guarantees that children as young as 4 will hear the most radical propaganda against the United States and Israel. We need to work with our allies to create a “counter-motivation fund,” an account that supports secular or moderate schools and hospitals in the Middle East, to provide an alternative to these terror-based social services. It would be expensive, but it would be much less costly than dealing with a new generation programmed to hate.

Finally, we should identify and support democratic dissidents and moderate Islamic clerics in the Middle East. No matter how sound our argument is, it needs credible messengers if it is to take hold. The ideal messengers are local, Muslim and committed to nonviolent change. Besides giving these activists a forum on the Internet and international media, we can help them by pressuring the repressive governments under which they live. This includes Saudi Arabia, where speech is so restricted that it's tough to make the simple case that killing is the wrong way to prove a point.

These are just a few thoughts on how we can win this war of ideas. Sadly, we can't rely on homeland security alone to keep us safe. We need to get creative and target the ideological underpinnings of terrorism.

To win this war, we must convince the world: You can't fight oppression by becoming the oppressor.

Fighting terrorism: It's a war of ideas