Let’s assume that everything we think we know about the recent terror attacks in London and Boston turns out to be true. That the people who carried them out were not actually part of a formal, organized international effort to kill Westerners — that they were not paid a salary by a terror group, or given an explicit order to go operational.
They attacked because they believed in it, but they were not part of a command chain. They murdered because they were “inspired.”
If this is true, then the Western world might be facing a totally new kind of terrorism — one that is highly confusing to our liberty-loving hearts.
People in policy circles have known for a long time about the concept of “inspired” or “leaderless” terrorists, who act in the name of an ideology and not an organization. Indeed, unlike groups like Hezbollah and Lashkar e-Taiba (of the Mumbai attacks), which maintain massive organizational capabilities, bank accounts, budgets, supply chains and training bases — unlike these, a large part of Al Qaeda’s efforts lately have gone to reinventing itself as an inspirational, rather than organizational, form of terror.
Its goal is to teach like-minded individuals around the world not only how to make bombs (as the Tsarnaev brothers did from the aptly named magazine Inspire), but also how to organize locally, how to raise their own funds, how to cover their tracks — in short, how to make terrorism happen without the benefit of old-school organizations.
The effect of this, from America and Europe’s perspective, is to move terrorism into an entirely new place — one that takes greatest advantage of Western society’s biggest legal, cultural and political blind spots.
For the second time in a decade and a half, we may now need to rethink the nature of our struggle against terror. After 9/11, Western policymakers woke up to the realization that they faced a new kind of war, organized by a non-state enemy who could not function without the sponsorship of states.
Because terrorists defied all the regular laws of war, you could legitimately operate militarily against their bases, their leaders, their camps and inside of countries that harbored them, and you could hold those states directly accountable, as well, destroying the terror groups’ ability to organize.
The downside, of course, was that Western countries found themselves blurring the lines between domestic and foreign enemies, deploying tools of surveillance against their citizenry, taking down walls that had separated intelligence gathering from law enforcement. The war on terror tested the boundaries of freedom.
Now, however, the terrorists have developed a new approach, one that does not depend so much on their ability to organize, and one that hits democracies in their most vulnerable spot. Now their warfare is even more asymmetric than before. By using the Internet to disseminate teachings and methods, they have found a way to effect violence.
Once again we need a new set of conceptual and policy tools. Because if terrorists can be inspired without being organized, what makes them any different from other crazy, violent people on the left and right, from Neo-Nazis and abortion clinic bombers to Branch Davidian and Sirhan Sirhan and the Weather Underground?
You cannot single out Islamic violent fanaticism from all the rest without raising the specter of prejudicial hatred of Muslims more broadly. Because ideology is opinion, and having a right to your own unpopular opinion is the very core of our civilization. You can’t ban inspiration without turning democracy against itself.
On the other hand, we also know that jihadism is a little different. None of these other crazies is “inspired” by sophisticated, well-funded global enemies bent on attacking Westerners in any way possible — people who have deliberately developed this new “leaderless” method as part of their war. Like the old kind of terrorism, this, too, is a premeditated violent assault on our civilians from outside our borders.
So, what do we do?
First of all, we need to reaffirm the basic distinction between domestic and international that became blurred after 9/11 — the line between our internal, coherent civilization in which, the rule of law obtains, force is legitimately monopolized by government, and people have not just human rights, but also civil rights, and the rest of the world, in which enemies need to be defeated through might and diplomacy rather than policing and courts. This is crucial because the more our enemies go after the foundations of our freedom, the more we have to defend those foundations, showing both our citizens and our foes that that we will never let our government turn on its own people the way so many bad regimes do.
And so: The Tsarnaevs and London attackers are not “foreign combatants” but domestic criminals who should be given a fair trial in a civilian criminal justice system, just like any other alleged mass murderer. They may be monsters, but they are our monsters. And we should continue to be proud of a system that preserves order and rights even when there’s a war going on. Because if there’s anything that living in Israel taught me, it’s that you can’t upend your whole domestic reality because of terrorism, or you’re giving the terrorists the very prize they seek.
At the same time, the people who inspired the Tsarnaevs and the Woolwich killers are not just teachers, but also a foreign enemy, actively trying to kill Westerners, and they should be destroyed. We don’t need domestic-judicial standards of proof in order to nail them. It’s enough to trust our intelligence, our military and our diplomacy. Moreover, these enemies are located in countries with governments that must be held accountable if they allow such people to keep “inspiring.” We don’t owe them anything.
Both of these ideas — reaffirming the inviolability of domestic rights while going ballistic against foreign enemies who inspire murder on our streets — can be true if we make them true. They both have to be true if democracy is to remain democracy while effectively fighting its enemies. Inspired terror should elicit an inspired response.
David Hazony is the editor of The Tower Magazine and is a contributing editor at the Forward.