Terrorism Has Political, Historical Roots, Pillar Says

March 2, 2005

PillarAmericans like simple explanations and need a clear provocation for fighting, so 9/11 mobilized the national will to confront terrorism in a way that numerous earlier attacks and even the long history of terrorism around the world failed to achieve, according to Paul Pillar, National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Pillar gave the keynote address for "Beyond the U.S. War on Terrorism: Comparing Domestic Legal Remedies to an International Dilemma," a Feb. 25-26 conference at the Law School co-sponsored by the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College and the J.B. Moore Society of International Law.

But what Americans really need is a more nuanced, historically and politically informed view of terrorism, Pillar contended. "Additional introspection about our own thinking [on terrorism] and that of our friends" is in order if we are to make the most successful responses to the threat, he said. "The national mood needs to be clearly distinguished from objective reality."

Since 9/11, the attack has been seen as an "epoch-defining discontinuity, and in terms of the public and the policy response it was," but the actual terrorist threat did not suddenly increase on 9/12. It had been imminent since the first attempt to topple the World Trade Center towers with a truck bomb in 1993.

Pillar said the two attacks on the towers differed only in their tactical approaches, not their ideological motives, and had bomber Ramzi Yousef conceived of jet plane fuel as a better weapon, the U.S. would have had its awakening to terrorism eight years earlier and perhaps at a greater cost in lives.

Before 9/11, the U.S. government fully appreciated the threat and was working against it, but "it often requires a calamity to muster support for major new initiatives," including providing them sufficient budgets. "It's true about the stoplight that doesn't get installed until after a child is run over," he said. "Or the tsunami warning system that will only now be installed in the Indian Ocean." A war to remove the Taliban government in Afghanistan was only possible after 9/11.

"Americans tend to overemphasize the newness of events and underplay the historical continuity that the events so often represent," Pillar argued. Terrorism's "pedigree goes back to the Middles Ages and the French Revolution." Borrowing from historian George David Rappaport, Pillar said there have been four modern waves of terrorism since the Russian anarchists of the 19th century attacked the czarist government until it collapsed with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. A second anticolonialist wave occurred between 1920 and 1960 as indigenous people attempted to throw off domination by European powers. A "new left" wave occurred in America and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s in reaction to the Vietnam War, and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the installation of an Islamic government opened a current wave of Islamist terrorism. The waves tend to have 40-year durations, he said.

Studying historical patterns could help significantly in formulating effective policy responses, Pillar said. "What really is new and what's not? It would help us differentiate between the tactics and the religious or political trends that underlie a wave."

Pillar pointed to the Red Scare of the 1920s-the reaction to a bomb explosion on Wall Street, believed to be the work of Russians, that led to arrests and deportations on a scale that aroused the indignation of the American Civil Liberties Union-as an episode that Americans should have learned from even if they did not see the point in learning from like events in other countries.

Likewise, the leftist Weather Underground carried out many terrorist attacks in the United States in the early 1970s, he pointed out, including an attack inside the U.S. Capitol. There were also PLO attacks and bombings at Union Station and La Guardia Airport in New York. "Where was our war on terrorism then? Where were the investigations and recriminations? Where was the 1970s version of the Patriot Act?" he asked rhetorically.

The answer, he said, again goes back to historical context: the Watergate affair and its stories of abuses of power. "Concern over terrorism was eclipsed by concern over what our own governmental institutions and officials were doing," he explained. Rather than enlarging government power, the impetus of the times was toward curtailing it.

We also have a rhetorical inclination to demarcate "eras," such as the Cold War era. Now the hunt is on for a name to replace the post-Cold war era, Pillar said, and the Era of War on Terrorism seems like a good candidate. This simplication has advantages, but too easily leads to oversimplifications in our view of foreign relations. The American view of foreign affairs is "non-Clausowitzian, meaning it does not see war as the continuation of politics by other means," Pillar said. Americans want to think of war and peace as distinct states with clear beginnings and ends.

Referring to a typology developed by Walter Russell Meade in his book "Special Providence," Pillar pointed to American attitudinal traditions such as Wilsonianism, seeking to make other nations more democratic; Hamiltonianism, emphasizing economic relationships such as oil dependency; and the attitude he considers now dominant: Jacksonianism, a militant populism that is the "expression of folk community that lives in middle class suburbs" and makes "virtues of honor and valor and the vigorous use of arms when necessary."

Jacksonianism "extends honor to enemies who fight honorably, but not to those who fight dishonorably. This tradition sees war as a switch that is either on or off. They don't like war as a dimmer switch." It's main disadvantage is that "it throws things into the same pot" and obscures important distinctions.

Pillar said a "false dichotomy" is drawn when terrorism is conceived of as being either a military (war) or police matter (crime).

Pillar was uncomfortable with the idea of a "war" on terrorism. The term "has a lot of baggage and blinders" that come from our history and culture, he said. "We need to realize that."

He also called for more respect for the views of other countries about terrorism. "Being the target of 9/11 does not give us a monopoly on wisdom about terrorism. There is a lot we can learn from others." He pointed to European experiences, noting that crack anti-terrorism units and expanded police powers were developed there in the 1970s in response to the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy, and that the French and British have deep understandings of the terrorism from the Algerian war and the campaigns of the Irish Republican Army. "The lessons they have learned are more trenchant" than we might think, he said.

Terrorism is a tactic employed for political and historical reasons, he repeated. "Al Qaeda's campaign against the United States has been mostly a way of waging a civil war within the Islamic world."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

News Highlights