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Death Watcher

David C. Rapoport, professor emeritus at UCLA, is editor of the academic journal Terrorism and Political Violence, published in London. He has also written or edited five books, Assassination and Terrorism, The Morality of Terrorism, The Rationalization of Terrorism, Inside Terrorist Organizations and The Democratic Experience and Political Violence. On the day of the September 11 attacks, while trying to find his daughter, who teaches at a grade school three blocks from the World Trade Center, and phoning his wife, who was stuck in London, Rapoport fielded 49 calls from the media. Friday morning, Rapoport leaned back on a couch in his home tucked into Beverly Glen, closed his eyes and spoke at length on the media-dubbed “Attack on America,” on the history of terrorism and on what might happen now.

L.A. WEEKLY: Was there any sense in which this event was expected? How does a historian of terrorism wake up and respond to those images -- how does he react?

DAVID C. RAPOPORT: The only sense in which I felt like I expected it, I had said, “It‘s going to be conventional, not unconventional” -- meaning chemical and biological weapons. But did I imagine that they could have done that many hijackings and that they would have turned the planes into bombs? No, no, no. Nobody who I have talked to, who has dealt with the subject, had any inkling of something like that.

Where would you place this attack in the history of terrorism?

There’s no parallel in terms of its scope -- the numbers killed and the fact that it was a simultaneous operation. You know, you would do something like blow up the Marine barracks in Beirut, and you would kill 240 people. But these would be incidents that would follow each other, and they didn‘t involve large numbers. This was prepared, I would guess, for several years, certainly at least a year. I don’t think you can find anything that involves so many people over such a long period towards one action. And that‘s one reason why I’m surprised, very surprised, it wasn‘t picked up.

What effect do you believe this action will have on what I suppose could be called “the terrorist community”? Will it up the ante, or have they gone so far over the top that it might actually have a deflationary effect?

I think it will have both reactions. What you’re talking about are a variety of groups, which don‘t share the same view about tactics. Certain tactics offend certain groups. I have no doubt that there will be a great deal of horror among some terrorists -- they never thought in these terms. And I think that may be true of Islamic groups as well. On the other hand, there are individuals and groups who will take this as an inspiration. I suspect -- and I think this is counter to what most so-called experts will tell you -- that there will be more disenchantment than attraction. But I would not be surprised if I was wrong.

Few of us have more than a rudimentary understanding of terrorism in general, certainly that which occurred prior to the hostage-taking in Iran. Can you give us a precis?

Terrorism, while not the same thing as crime in the sense that crime always exists everywhere, is fairly deeply rooted, at least since the 1st century. It was originally religious activity and only became secular with the French Revolution. Then, with the Iranian Revolution, it was back to the religious. Of course, we’ve had Christian and Jewish terror, but it‘s predominantly and rightly associated with Islam, because in Islam you’ve had the greatest successes -- most importantly in the Iranian Revolution, which was not brought about by terror but then moved into sponsoring terrorist organizations.

And then Afghanistan was the great victory, because it defeated one of the secular superpowers. The enthusiasm the Afghan war generated in the Muslim world -- the sense of hope that they could do something -- was comparable to Spain in the 1930s, when, even though the antifascist movement was licked in Spain, it was given a kind of unity it lacked before.

And it changed the landscape.

My plea is that we remember a little more about our history, so we won‘t make the same mistakes. What we are always looking for is something new and unique. That’s one reason that I believe we missed this. We spent some $60 billion on anti-terrorism since 1993. Most of that money was for anticipated chemo-bio threats. All the conferences that I was invited to attend focused on chemo-bio.

I published a piece several years ago called “Terrorism and the Weapons of the Apocalypse,” and it was about the implications of Aum Shinrikyo [the Japanese cult that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway]. I said that these weapons are extraordinarily difficult to use, and I don‘t believe they can be used; terrorists are more likely going to do it with conventional weapons, like explosives. I was contacted by the city manager of San Antonio, and she said, “We have to develop plans for chemo-bio attack. Would you be interested in sharing information?” So I sent her this article, and after reading it she said, “You know, I agree with this, but we have all this money and we have to spend it.” That’s what happened -- they got the wrong threat.

 

Perhaps bin Laden or whoever read your article. In any case, keeping us off guard wouldn‘t seem to be that difficult.

We’re never going to get rid of international terrorism. Anybody who thinks that . . .

Such as President Bush? So what he says is going to happen isn‘t.

Well, you can greatly reduce Islamic terrorism partly because many Islamic states feel very threatened by it. They’re much harder on them vis-a-vis movement than we are, curiously enough. We can probably get the cooperation, provided we know how to do it -- and don‘t try to threaten our way -- because the Islamic world, the largest portion of it, finds this a menace. Although obviously there is some sympathy for the attacks and jubilation in parts of that world. While the image of the Palestinian joy was, I think, irresponsible for the media to show, it does reflect a sentiment -- but not the only sentiment in the Islamic community. It’s something that can be dealt with without thinking that you have to wipe everything out. I mean, this is not war.

What should we be doing?

I think there is a favorable climate, created by the incident, that will enable us to take political steps. We have people who are potentially more interested in doing something about terrorism outside the country than we‘ve had in a long time. That’s obviously clear in Europe; it‘s also clear in many Muslim countries. The countries that we’re dealing with have mixed populations. So we should be concerned not to make those who sympathize unable to function in their own countries. We are not at war with all of Islam; we‘re not at war with even all of Afghanistan. And we’re certainly not at war with Pakistan, but we do need Pakistan‘s support. But they cannot help us in such a way that it looks as though they’ve sold their soul to us.

It‘s a complicated thing; it takes patience, it takes time. Your own passions can get out of bounds; you can do great political harm to yourself by not thinking out carefully what the implications are of what you’re doing. The temptation to act decisively, visibly, is very destructive. When the president said, “This is what my administration is going to be about, it‘s going to be the first war of the 21st century,” to me that was the wrong message to send. The lack of proportion is potentially very dangerous. But there are some sensible people in this country.

That’s good to know -- can you share any names?

There are a lot of people who are sensible, but they need public support, too, and it does seem to me that they need more publicity [laughs] than they are getting. Colin Powell was very good about this on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer the other night. He said this will be a long process, that our main asset is our political allies. Military force should only be used in very specific circumstances where we know what we‘re going to do and can be successful, and we’ll get the help of other countries. And it‘s intelligence. In my view, in general terms, he’s got it right -- it‘s not a war. Though the commander-in-chief was saying this is a war, Powell was saying it’s not. Even if it is a war, he should read Clausewitz (the 19th-century Prussian theorist of war), because Clausewitz says a war has to be defined politically and limited by what is politically possible.

What do you most fear from this administration?

It‘s not a cruise-missile matter, it’s not a bombing matter, it‘s an expedition of some sort. Trained anti-terrorist squads and things of that sort, maybe in larger numbers. But bombing’s not the answer. One day we have to get out of places like Saudi Arabia, but we can‘t really do it in response to this directly, because that will only encourage more terrorism. But we should have been talking, thinking about getting out. I mean, bin Laden’s main concern has been the stationing of troops in Islamic holy places. That is a legitimate concern. He doesn‘t want them there, because they’re not Muslim. And a lot of Muslims feel the same way.

 

The domestic front is no less dangerous.

At the turn of the century, the Europeans proposed a crusade against terrorism a and creating international bonds to deal with it. And we refused to do it, for a number of reasons -- we didn‘t want to get involved, but also because we had no police force. So as a consequence, we did set up a police force, and that was the FBI, whose powers were immensely expanded after the anarchist bombing of Wall Street in 1920. And you can understand this. But many of the FBI’s excesses were generated by the passion generated by those bombings. So all kinds of unanticipated permanent events can come out of an outrage, and this is one of the important consequences of terrorism, historically.

A lot of people want to know, basically, what‘s up with these assassins. World War II Japan’s religion led to kamikaze pilots. There doesn‘t seem to be much of a tendency among Christians and Jews toward suicide bombing.

We invented martyrdom!

Enough said. And you believe that terrorism “has a peculiar connection with democracy.” Can you explain that?

There are two dimensions: One is that we tend to give the population aspirations or hopes that cannot be fulfilled. The second is that it’s the nature of democratic institutions to allow you to move around and criticize and so forth. So the two dimensions periodically produce terror episodes or waves. It‘s no accident that the term “terror” comes from the French Revolution, which had a government that proclaimed a reign of terror because it wanted to purify its people.

When was the first movement of terror in this country? The Sons of Liberty. That’s not George Washington. Those are people who tarred and feathered Loyalists. Most of the English Canadian population came as refugees from the American War of Independence, and they were driven out by terrorists. Then there was the terror in the South by the Ku Klux Klan. That did not make Grant or Robert E. Lee a terrorist. But you do find that there are terrorist movements and episodes that are associated with noble struggles -- not that I would call the Ku Klux Klan engaged in a noble struggle -- but certainly in the American Revolution. If you‘re using the word terror to mean non-state rebel terror -- non-state troops acting in ways that are illegal with the hope of through fear creating an appropriate political situation -- you find it’s very common in democratic states. You didn‘t have anything like that in the Soviet Union; one of the reasons was the state had terror, which intimidated the population. You need hope for terror, and democracies supply hope.

It’s a paradox.

Yes. But that‘s the world we live in, and people don’t want to make it more complicated than it is. Because that tends to paralyze action, too. We don‘t want to talk about the political aims of any of these terrorist groups, because we may sympathize with them. So we want to describe them in ways that are simply psychologically offensive. Again, we’re throwing around metaphors, and one hopes -- hopes -- that they‘re simply being used because we can’t find the language to express our horror.

Americans don‘t understand war very well. We understand it as the destruction of the enemy rather than being able to live with the enemy. There are some enemies you can’t live with, but, you know, we have difficulties making peace, because in order to make war we have to raise the stakes and say our existence is at stake, and so forth. And that has two consequences: It will either turn people against you because they don‘t believe it, as was the case in Vietnam, or, if they do believe you, then they can’t let the enemy exist in any form. We invented the term unconditional surrender.

Democracy has many good things associated with it, but we don‘t really want to think about what may be its almost inevitable consequences.

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