Terrorism and the Decline of the Democratic Nation State

Contrary to the "huff and puff" words of George Bush and other political world leaders, the war on terrorism cannot be won.

Terrorism is a strategy for achieving political ends. Just as crime is a strategy for achieving economic ends; taking drugs a strategy for achieving transcendence; or religion a strategy for achieving life's meaning and purpose.

You can argue that such strategies aren't moral, don't work, or are just plain wrong, but you can't argue against the fact they are used. And you cannot win a war against a "strategy."

A strategy arises from human nature--as a way of attempting to fulfill human needs, wants, foibles, and weaknesses. So, in essence, a war on terrorism (as would be a war on crime, a war on drugs, or a war on religion) is a war on human nature.

The war on terrorism cannot be won. Instead, the war will gradually, but surely, undermine the very states who boldly declare their capacity to win it, and who expend financial and human resources in the effort to do so.

In this regard, the book The Sovereign Individual by William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson is proving prophetic.

One of its main theses was that the means of violence was no longer the monopoly of nation states alone, but was increasingly available to any individual or group who decided to make use of it.

The decreasing cost, reduced size, greater effectiveness and wider availability of various types of weapons and ordnance--once the sole domain of nation states--has made it possible for individuals and groups to lay hands on them.

This "democratisation" of the means of violence--allowing any motivated individual or group to obtain advanced weaponry--is causing a fundamental power shift on the global stage.

Previously, the cost of obtaining potential WMD was prohibitive, and only available to nation states, backed by their capacity to tax and spend inordinate amounts of money on defense matters.

Ever since 9/11, the public has been made increasingly aware of the "power of one"--as represented by a lone suicide bomber, strapped to the hilt with devastating explosives. Just one person has the ability to undermine, threaten, disrupt, dismember, and throw into chaos the whole of a society.

9/11 itself demonstrated how, without a single significant weapon or bomb, it was possible to bring down two enormous buildings and kill thousands of people.

And again, the Iraq war is undermining all previous assumptions about warfare. Here, an impoverished nation, attacked by the world's only superpower, is still maintaining a state of war--due to nothing more than a few thousand determined individuals--and ready availability of weapons.

It's David and Goliath all over.

The Iraq war is also unveiling another tactic: executions and the taking of hostages. And as I was writing this, a similar event took place in the province of North Osettia, near Chechnya, where around 1,000 people were seized as hostages, with the demand that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya. The outcome was a human catastrophe, with hundreds of people dead and wounded.

Add to that the brutal realities of beheadings and executions that are becoming the standard fare of the daily news, and you can see not the "winning" of a war, but the "spreading" of what we loosely term terrorism.

Of course, terrorism isn't new. It's been around as long as there have been individuals or groups with grievances. But there is no denying that it is on the increase. Why? Because, as a strategy, it is increasingly seen as a tactically effective means of achieving a desired end. And the vital ingredient to such "success" is the broad availability of the means of violence.

The typical nation state response is, "We will not negotiate with terrorists"--which taps into the latent fear felt by more and more people--offering at least the hope of winning the war. But the truth is that a democratic nation state, in the end, has to deal with the collective response of its hapless voters. And there is one gaping Achilles Heel: the difference between an institutional and personal response to terrorist threats, demands and actions.

The first thing we need to be clear on is this: Terrorists don't just go around bombing or abducting people for no reason. There is always a political demand of some sort. It may be as single-minded as "get all foreign troops out of our country," or relate to a more complex situation. But there is always a demand of some sort.

The best way to understand the fundamental difference between an institutional and personal response to a terrorist's demand is to consider the following:

Imagine your own child was kidnapped. Imagine you get a phone call, demanding that you leave the country, or that you leave your job, or any other demand which was aimed at you personally. And if you do not comply, your child will be killed.

What would your response be?

Would you boldly state, "I won't negotiate with terrorists," or would you do whatever is humanly possible to save your child?

Naturally, you would do anything to save your child--even if it meant leaving the country. Your first concern would be to your child, not the greater issue as to whether to "give in" to terrorists or not.

And that's what we see happening now. For example, in Iraq, there have been many cases of kidnappings, and every time, the people personally involved have wanted the demands met, so either their own life, or the life of a loved one, can be spared. This is human nature. But it's not in the nature of the nation state.

The nation state can boldly assert "no negotiating," because it is impersonal. It does not stand to lose a loved one. And it is this polarity between the interests of the individual and the collective that will drive the democratic nation state "out of business."

The fact is, any democracy is ultimately maintained by the will of the majority. If the majority get sick of the personal cost, in human lives, of maintaining a tough, non-negotiation strategy, then such frustration and anger will ultimately turn up in the ballot box - leading to a political back-down.

We can see this in Israel. Ariel Sharon's Likud government is the "tough guy," epitomising the "we will will not deal with terrorists" stance. However, increasingly, individual Israelis seek another way to deal with the crisis. And the reason is simple: More and more individual Israelis are suffering, and have suffered, from the consequences of various terrorist acts.

The natural response of individual people is to save the lives of their loved ones--and to seek to negotiate with whomever is making demands--to come to some agreement, even if it means meeting the demands in some way.

I'm not saying this is right or wrong--in the larger scheme of things--but simply, that it is.

It is this reality which will undermine the democratic nation state's collective will--over time--as terrorist acts become more prevalent. And in the end, it will force a complete rethink as to how to deal with terrorist demands.

Just to take one example--Chechnya. What is the demand of the Chechen separatists? That's simple. They want independence from Russia. That's it. Now, if you--as an individual--had the power to grant such independence, and if it was your child's life that was being threatened, then you'd probably agree, and grant independence. But not the nation state. The nation state rarely, if ever, grants any form of independence. It cannot allow any form of secession. To do so, completely undermines its capacity to rule, to maintain its power base.

Now, take a look around the world and ask yourself: How much of what various terrorist groups demand is related to issues of territory? Probably most. The resistance fighters in Iraq want the foreign troops out of their country. The Chechens want the Russians to leave. The Palestinians want their own independent state. The fundamentalist Muslims want all "infidels" to get out of their lands. And let's not forget the Irish, in their long- running battle with the British, to regain control of Ireland.

But that's just scraping the surface. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller territorial or secession-related disputes.

The point is this: The nation states will not tolerate such disputes, perceiving them as a direct threat to their own existence. They provide no political means of resolving such demands, and thus terrorism--the use of violence--is born.

However, territorial disputes of this nature are NOT a direct threat to any person as an individual. Therefore, the interest of individuals is ultimately different from that of nation states. And individuals will only tolerate so much pain and suffering before they start questioning the fundamental premise on which so much terrorism is based.

In this way, terrorist acts will drive a wedge between individual people and their democratically elected governments, forcing such governments to either deal with such territorial demands or face electoral defeat. Either way, it is a defeat for the state.

It only takes one state to "roll over," to encourage more of the type of acts that lead to it.

Remember Spain? One major terrorist act against the train system was enough to become a catalyst for pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq. The other nation states blustered in response: "We must not appease terrorists." However, the Spanish, as individuals, were simply acting in their own self interest.

The Philippines followed a similar tack. When a single man's life was threatened, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo made a decision that mystified most other nation states and capitulated to the terrorists' demands. And she did so precisely because of domestic electoral pressure. The pressure to save one life.

We see the same situation in Iraq, where many hostages have been taken--and demands made that the companies who employ them pull out of Iraq. In most cases, to my knowledge, the companies have given in to the terrorists' demands and pulled out. From their point of view, they could not put their corporate interests above their individual worker's lives.

Let me emphasise here, I'm not discussing the morality of terrorist acts per se (usually defined as violence against unarmed civilians), but rather their utility as a strategy for achieving certain political objectives. For you have to remember, terrorism--as a tactic--is resorted to when there is no political means of resolution, as in when some group wants to secede, or to drive some "foreign" power out of their country. Unfortunately, the use of violence often works.

This is nothing new. It was Mao Tse Tung who said, "Every good communist should know that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." And nothing has changed.

Violence has, for aeons, been the means of attaining political objectives. Even your own government will apply violence to YOU if you do not hand over "protection" money in the form of tax. And if you don't believe me, try it!

The difference now, is that parties other than governments have acquired the means of using violence to achieve political ends.

Terrorism is a form of "gang warfare." Governments represent the superiority of one type of "gang" over another. The rise of terrorism represents a challenge to the currently prevailing gang's authority.

How will it all end? I cannot say. All I know is the current political order is under immense stress, both politically and economically. And there is ample evidence to suggest that fundamental and radical changes as to how we manage and organise ourselves in a social context are already underway.

The daily news of bombings, executions, killings and maimings, is but the tip of the iceberg. It's also a diversion away from the more fundamental forces at play. Fear obliterates all reason.

There are really only two possible outcomes: Either the nation states grow in power--suppressing all democratic functions and individual freedoms--in order to become the totalitarian states necessary to crush all violent dissent, or they become irrelevant and wither away over time.

Personally, I believe the latter to be the case--that we are witnessing a fundamental challenge to the nation state's historical monopoly of the means of violence, and its capacity to hold territory together. This will, in the end, undermine the very basis of what we currently understand as "nationhood."

The nation states have every reason to fear terrorists, but is the nation state's interest equivalent to your own?

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David MacGregor's picture
Columns on STR: 26

David MacGregor runs an information service and publishes a newsletter for freedom seekers and aspiring sovereign individuals at www.sovereignlife.com