Political violence of the kind that recently rocked India will necessarily dominate the agenda of President-elect Barack Obama and his newly announced national security team.
In addition to killing or injuring hundreds of people from various countries, the miscreants in Mumbai assaulted the world’s sense of decency in ways similar to the Sept. 11 perpetrators. Such despicable acts — which could occur just as easily in America as in India — underscore the importance of a sustained, innovative, proactive, multilateral battle against global terrorism.
If Obama absorbs nothing else from the outgoing Bush administration — and, yes, there is something to learn from that experience — it ought to be that the United States has a responsibility to lead the world in securing solutions to the threat. This nation cannot afford to retreat to its past position of insufficiently acknowledging and preparing for the full extent of the terrorist challenge.
Now, I have no illusions that some types of terrorism, such as the version practiced by al-Qaida and like-minded groups, defy peaceful solutions. Their beliefs emerge from a combination of ideology and religion, draw inspiration from revolutionary rhetoric, and encourage a ruthless rampage that neither seeks nor accepts compromise. To deal with them, governments typically must rely on police action or military force.
Other types of terrorism, however, can and should be approached with the aim of cutting off their roots. Reducing inequities such as poverty and human-rights violations would diminish rationales for many people to resort to terrorism.
How should the incoming Obama administration begin the task of confronting global terrorism? I turned to terrorism-studies pioneer Stephen Sloan, author of “Terrorism: The Present Threat in Context,” for specific ideas. He recommended that Obama:
• Apply a steady hand. Amid the shock, anger, frustration, sorrow and demands for justice after incidents such as the Mumbai attacks, sober thinking is required. Anything can happen in the age of terrorism. And, because the problem is protracted in nature, there are no quick solutions. Terrorists test society’s resolve. Further, their ability to generate and multiply fear, both in individuals and governments, heightens the danger of overreaction. This is not the time for quick, ill-conceived responses that appeal to emotion rather than reason. Consistency is key.
• Reach out to the world. Terrorism is international, making global cooperation essential. Unfortunately, in many ways, the terrorists have achieved a unity of action exceeding that of the governments opposed to them. This situation calls for the United States to work more closely and effectively with both allies and others who struggle against terrorism. To reduce the chances of future Mumbai-style attacks — and this was the case with Sept. 11, as well — there is a fundamental need for greater sharing of intelligence, and the creation of a culture of willingness to listen and act accordingly.
• Make a broader commitment to counterterrorism education. It is more important than ever to understand the nature of terrorism and its goals, as well as to assist citizens in addressing threats and incidents beyond simply reacting to the carnage that they witness. The appropriate educational initiative should start at least in high school and place terrorism into a context that prepares Americans for the long haul. The current wave of terrorism will be with us for some time, probably a generation.
• Pay more attention to the sources of terrorism. It is critical to identify, monitor and address the underlying causes of terrorism in a systematic manner. A periodic progress report on this subject would be very useful. Whether an emphasis on the roots of terrorism developed out of existing resources or took the form of a new office, it would encourage thinking about long-term strategies against a scourge that realistically will never entirely disappear.
As usual, Sloan is on the mark. I hope that Obama heeds his practical advice, retains global terrorism as a top U.S. priority, and shapes a sustained, innovative, proactive, multilateral plan to confront it.