Ilankai Tamil Sangam

23rd Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Terrorism, Violence, and Reconciliation

by Bob Rae on his website, November 26, 2007

The use of violence against civilians to further a political cause is the simplest definition of terrorism. As a tactic it is meant to strike fear in an opponent as well as intimidation in the civilian population. It is deplorable because it is so brutal, so random, so hurtful.

Over thirty years ago I flew standby from Belfast to London - and the plane made an emergency landing in Manchester. All passengers were taken to a hangar and interviewed at length by the Central Intelligence Branch of Scotland Yard. We were told at that time that a bomb had been found on board. Many years later I read an account of this incident in a book on the history of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It turned out that one of the passengers on the plane was heading to Buckingham Palace to be honoured by the Queen. It also so happened that the pin meant to conduct the charge from the timer to the bomb had been covered by a single coat of paint, and thus the bomb failed to explode.

A couple of weeks ago I met with Gerry Murphy, a former leader of the IRA who is now a member of the Northern Ireland cabinet. I told him this story, and he expressed scepticism and disbelief about it - he explained that he was in jail at the time, and it was not IRA policy to attack planes in this way. I told him that I could only tell him what happened, and the explanation I had seen in what was by all accounts a reasonably objective history of the RUC.

If the bomb had gone off, it would have preceded the Air India bombing by a dozen years. As fate would have it, I spent nearly a year of my life studying that atrocity and writing about it in "Lessons to be Learned".

That meeting, the experience with Air India and the subsequent talk I gave to a Sri Lankan peace group in Toronto prompts these thoughts. The use of violence against civilians to further a political cause is the simplest definition of terrorism. As a tactic it is meant to strike fear in an opponent as well as intimidation in the civilian population. It is deplorable because it is so brutal, so random, so hurtful. Less understood is that the tactic itself is only possible when the terrorist group is convinced that the cause justifies the awful means, that there is no other avenue for success, and that the sacrifice of life ( in the case of suicide bombing, the life of the perpetrator) is sanctified and made more holy by the loss of blood.

But the use of the label should not lead us to the conclusion that only a military victory will lead to the end of terrorism. So it is that that the Irgun group in Israel was eventually absorbed by the Likud, the PLO changed its charter, the African National Congress abandoned the military struggle in favour of peaceful political change, and Gerry Murphy of the IRA can tell me over a cup of tea that Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley are working well together in Stormont Castle in Belfast. Change can happen, and effective diplomacy and politics can trump terrorism. It is a terrible thing, and an awful tactic, but if politics can be creative and decisive enough it can be abandoned. "Once a terrorist, always a terrorist" is ironically not true.

The leaders of Northern Ireland should be going around the world explaining how it can be done. Sri Lanka is once again in the grips of a terrible violence - from all sides - which has at its roots a belief from both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the government of Sri Lanka that guerilla and military activity are in fact the only way to "resolve" the conflict. But wiser voices know that won't happen. Deep change on both sides, and a willingness to accept the legitimacy of the other are at the heart of any successful political dynamic for peace and reconciliation. No one should under-estimate how difficult it is, but neither should anyone accept the alternative, which is more killing, more loss of life, more destruction, more pain, more suffering. And the desert that remains will not be called peace, because the underlying sources of the conflict will have gone unresolved. There is nothing stable about oppression.

The Law and Society Trust (http://www.lawandsocietytrust.org/), an NGO in Sri Lanka put out a recent document which numbered the killings and disappearances in Sri Lanka from January to August 2007 at 1212 people. This includes 23 humanitarian workers and 8 media personnel and averages 5 people per day. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes in the most recent fighting, which has in the last couple of years included the assassination of the Foreign Minister, the deputy head of the Peace Secretariat in Colombo, and the Political Director of the LTTE. I knew each of these last three - all Tamils of great distinction and very different points of view.

Denouncing terrorism, and putting in place measures to deal with it, are both essential. None of us are free from its consequences. But that in itself is not enough. We also have to work for the changes that will lead people to abandon violence as a tactic. To those who say it can't be done, the answer is look at the countries that have managed to put this behind them, and the political leaders that have abandoned violence because other routes were ultimately more productive.

There are lessons here for Afghanistan as well, but of that more later.