Arie Perliger, Director of Terrorism Studies at West Point, described the antagonistic relationship between terrorism and democracy in the second edition of the Fall 2012 Human Rights and Terrorism Speaker Series. Adequate scholarship as to why groups turn to terror tactics and the best ways to respond to terrorism has yet to be done. Most interestingly, Perliger argues that effective counterterrorism policies do not necessarily detract from civil liberties.
Perliger is particularly interested in why democracies continue to implement ineffective counterterrorism policies. There is a lack of solid theory on how democracies can effectively respond to terrorism. The existing counterterrorism literature, asserts Perliger, focuses on the operational aspects of counterterrorism policy and neglects the political and legal dimensions of terrorism. Perliger cautioned the audience that it is important to remember that terrorism is the product of groups with political agendas. These groups have turned to violent means and scare tactics, but their aims are political in nature.
Often appropriate consideration is not given to the question of what makes terrorism effective. Terrorism is an effective tactic when the discourse around the conflict or issues in question changes. Terrorist groups rarely, if ever, have the capacity to defeat a traditional state military using traditional military tactics. As a result, terrorist groups must turn to a form of psychological or symbolic warfare. While the impacts of such a strategy are very real, the goals of actors involved are to make a psychological or symbolic impact. When policymakers better understand what makes terrorism an attractive strategy, they will be better able to draft effective counterterrorism policies.
Perliger argues, "terrorism is a democracy phenomenon," because only when engaging with democracies does it make sense to conduct a psychological war. In an autocracy, it does not much matter than the public buys into the narrative offered by their government. In a democracy, on the other hand, public perception matters a great deal. Terrorism as we know it is also a modern phenomenon made possible by the invention of dynamite and the development of mass media.
Perliger then argued that the traditional perception of counterterrorism policies as inherently in opposition to civil liberties is not exactly correct. It is possible, according to Perliger, to respect basic freedoms while implementing effective counterterror policies. He cited the Spanish treatment of the Basque separatist movement as an example, The Spanish government invested in Basque territories economically and allowed for a Basque-run Parliament and schools to be put into place. In this way, the Spanish government delegitimized acts of terror committed by the separatists rather than spurring them on. These policies also offered an alternative narrative, one that allowed for coexistence.
Written by Whitney Taylor.