The hostage crisis has given Americans a new appreciation of terrorism. Brian Michael Jenkins, who heads the social science department of the Rand Corporation, here offers some observations on the subject in excerpts from an interview by the Italian news service Kronos.
Q: Why hasn't terrorism in the United States reached the tragic levels attained in other countries?
A: In terms of the sheer number of terrorist incidents, the United States ranks among those countries where terrorism is seen to be a major problem. But terrorism in the United States has been less lethal, directed against property, not people. Symbolic bombings, without casualties, comprise the vast majority of all terrorist incidents here. If we count only deaths caused by terrorists and adjust for disparities in population, then Italy has suffered roughly five times as much terrorism as the United States.
Second, we have witnessed few spectacular acts here, only one political kidnapping, that of Patty Hearst, nothing comparable to the Moro or D'Urso episodes. Third, the high level of violent crime in the United States overshadows the comparatively low level of political violence. With more than 20,000 homicides a year and thousands of armed robberies, fewer than 80 deaths as a result of political violence during the last 10 years hardly seems significant or frightening.
In a society so heavily armed and apparently so prone to personal violence, why is there comparatively so little political violence? Ideology and ethnic separatism are the motors of terrorism in Europe. Although numerous ethnic minorities make up the population of the United States, and ethnic consciousness in the United States has increased, ethnic-based separatist movements have not been a feature of American history. Neither has ideology been a powerful force in American history. Frontier society and the individualistic nature of American society did not lend themselves to class consciousness. Somehow the United States escaped the ideological contests that divided countries in Europe and Asia in the 20th century. The New Left of the 1960s was not so much ideologically motivated as it was oriented on a single issue: the war in Vietnam.
Q: Are there measures that could prevent the spread of terrorism?
A: Perhaps the greatest danger posed by terrorism, and indeed, sometimes its intended effect, is that it creates an atmosphere of fear and alarm in which a frightened populace will clamor for draconian measures, totalitarian solutions. Terrorism should be fought with even more democracy. I know it sounds trite, but it represents a recognition that a certain amount of political violence is a price paid for a free and open society. Terrorism, or at least public knowledge of it, is absent only in totalitarian states, and even there not entirely. Combating terrorism is a tough task in a democracy. I get nervous when people start talking about eradicating terrorism.
A strategy against terrorism may have several components. One component comprises those measures aimed at the terrorists themselves: good intelligence, effective police work, a functioning criminal justice system. Italy has had enormous success in this area during the past two years.
Law enforcement by itself may not suffice, especially where the terrorists may have a large constituency of sympathizers, a deep reservoir of recruits and terrorism persists. The government may then also have to consider a broader political strategy: It may have to deal with the underlying conditions that produce new generations of terrorists. Reforms will not placate terrorists. Many of the issues on behalf of which terrorists claim to be fighting are either not legitimate or not intractable. Those aiming at the destruction of the state are uninterested in compromise. However, in some cases, political solutions may deprive terrorists of a constituency.
A third component comprises those measures aimed at combating the atmosphere of alarm created by the terrorist. This involves tasks of public education, reassertion of basic moral values and democratic principles, the maintenance of at least the appearance of government competence, rejection of the idea that terrorism can be eradicated quickly or entirely, and that the government's failure to do so is a sign of impotence. It might also be pointed out that terrorism at least at its current level is a bearable price. A comparison of the toll of terrorism versus the toll of ordinary crime should serve to reduce an exaggerated sense of alarm caused by a relatively few, albeit dramatic deaths.
Q: The kidnapping of single important persons and so on -- what should be the attitude of the authorities toward cases?
A. There are no general rules -- no recipes to follow. There are, of course, policies. Governments generally have been growing more resistant to meeting the demands of terrorists holding hostages, and have demonstrated their willingness to use force to end such situations. Public opinion has supported this trend. As a result, measured by anything other than publicity, the success rate of terrorists has been declining. Terrorism also seems to be on a downhill slope of publicity. The news value of another assassination, another kidnapping, diminishes as such things, regrettably, have become almost routine, except for the occasional spectacular event. Ironically, while extensive media coverage tends to magnify individual terrorist episodes, coverage ultimately deflates their effect by making them commonplace.
Q: What has America done to avoid the danger of Italian-type terrorism?
A: According to statistics published by the Department of State, of approximately 7,300 international terrorist incidents that occurred between January 1968 and October 1980, 2,700 -- more than a third -- were directed at U.S. citizens or installations -- 173 Americans were killed, 970 were injured. The crisis that began with the seizure of the American Embassy in Iran has been our major preoccupation. Terrorism, whether directed against American citizens abroad or carried out within the United States, will be a continuing problem. Government has focused its program to combat terrorism on five areas; prediction through effective intelligence; prevention through increased security at likely terrorist targets; contingency planning through an interdepartmental working group on terrorism; crisis management to respond effectively to those incidents that may occur; and international cooperation through multilateral agreements with other nations. None of these measures will end terrorism. It is an enduring task.