Why we should give in to terrorism

European politicians often react to terrorist incidents, by proclaiming that they will not give in to terrorism. They also tell the public that “we” should not give in either. However, ‘not giving in to terrorists’ is not a moral principle, and cannot be.

Firstly, it is often not clear what these politicians mean. The phrase implies that terrorists have made a clear demand, and that the state is considering whether to concede it or not. Sometimes terrorists do make concrete demands — the release of a named prisoner, for example. Usually they do not: they simply circulate propaganda. The propaganda sometime states their ideology, but even that can be more implicit than explicit.

Typically, western politicians also state that certain terrorists are a threat to the West, to our values, to our society, to democracy, to the rule of law. They imply that the terrorists have demanded the abolition of these things, and that their demands have been rejected. In reality, very few terrorists ever make such demands, and certainly not with any expectation of success. Restructuring the constitution and government in European states, has effectively zero priority for ISIS, for instance.

No non-western terrorist group is capable of ‘defeating the West’ anyway. They simply do not have the power to replace western democracy with, for instance, an Islamic state. The most prominent Islamist groups, the alleged existential threat to the West, are generally incapable of large-scale direct actions there. The September 11 attacks in the United States were a rare exception, but even then, there was no question of overthrowing the US government. In Europe no attack has been comparable in terms of casualties. Major attacks are very rare, and terrorism is an insignificant cause of death in Europe, even in relation to violent deaths in general.

Rejection of demands which were never made in the first place, can certainly not serve as a moral principle. But politics is about who exercises power, and that raises another issue: who decides what a ‘terrorist demand’ is?

If we accept ‘not giving in’ as a guiding principle for state policy, then we grant political power to those who decide exactly what the ‘terrorist demands’ are. A realistic example here is the abortion issue: conservative Christian politicians could claim that ‘terrorists are demanding abortion’, and use that as an excuse to prohibit it. If the state automatically rejects all terrorist demands, then it is politically advantageous to present the position of your opponents as a terrorist demand. In effect an arbitrary veto right is created. Since anyone can use this trick, contradictory claims would be made. Pro-abortion campaigners could equally claim, that some Christian terrorists demand a ban on abortion (which is in fact true).

So, someone would decide which claims are ‘the real terrorist demands’, and that someone is then in a position to decide the policy of the state. That not only lacks transparency, it also lacks logic. That is not the way to run a country — first hold a competition to invent terrorist demands, and then let an arbitrary person arbitrarily select the winner.

In the real world, terrorist groups do indeed make contradictory demands. A classic example is the war in French colonial Algeria. An anti-colonial insurrection among the ethnic Algerians, led by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) demanded independence. The substantial ethnic French minority in Algeria, and dissident army officers, formed the right-wing Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) to oppose it. France at first violently suppressed the insurrection in Algeria. When General De Gaulle later realised that independence was inevitable, and negotiated with the FLN, the OAS tried to kill him. It would have been impossible to decide the issue of Algerian independence, solely on the principle that ‘all terrorist demands must be resisted’.

So ‘not giving in to terrorism’ is a slogan, and not a workable or desirable principle. Slogans are a political fact in themselves, but they are primarily an expression of emotion. Calls to ‘stand up to terrorism’ tell us that the speaker is angry — about ISIS, for instance. They do not, however, offer any moral guidance on how to react to ISIS, or anything else. Such decisions should be made on the basis of other, better, principles.