getting back to the basics on terrorists

[I'm excerpting sections from a contributing OP-ED piece by Zbigniew Brzezinski in yesterday's NYTimes. The complete text fleshes out the skeletal, but succinct, argument posted here.]

Missing from much of the public debate is discussion of the simple fact that lurking behind every terroristic act is a specific political antecedent. That does not justify either the perpetrator or his political cause. Nonetheless, the fact is that almost all terrorist activity originates from some political conflict and is sustained by it as well. That is true of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, the Basques in Spain, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the Muslims in Kashmir and so forth.

In the case of Sept. 11, it does not require deep analysis to note — given the identity of the perpetrators — that the Middle East's political history has something to do with the hatred of Middle Eastern terrorists for America. The specifics of the region's political history need not be dissected too closely because terrorists presumably do not delve deeply into archival research before embarking on a terrorist career. Rather, it is the emotional context of felt, observed or historically recounted political grievances that shapes the fanatical pathology of terrorists and eventually triggers their murderous actions.


Yet there has been a remarkable reluctance in America to confront the more complex historical dimensions of this hatred. The inclination instead has been to rely on abstract assertions like terrorists "hate freedom" or that their religious background makes them despise Western culture.

To win the war on terrorism, one must therefore set two goals: first to destroy the terrorists and, second, to begin a political effort that focuses on the conditions that brought about their emergence. That is what the British are doing in Ulster, the Spaniards are doing in Basque country and the Russians are being urged to do in Chechnya. To do so does not imply propitiation of the terrorists, but is a necessary component of a strategy designed to isolate and eliminate the terrorist underworld.


A victory in the war against terrorism can never be registered in a formal act of surrender. Instead, it will only be divined from the gradual waning of terrorist acts. Any further strikes against Americans will thus be a painful reminder that the war has not been won. Sadly, a main reason will be America's reluctance to focus on the political roots of the terrorist atrocity of Sept. 11.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser in the Carter administration.

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Published on September 2, 2002 1:14 PM.

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