Making sense of terrorism

Making sense of terrorism McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 27, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 02
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > September 27, 2001 > Making sense of terrorism

Making sense of terrorism

The inter-university Research Group in International Security (REGIS) and McGill's Department of Political Science held a roundtable to address the issue that's on everyone's mind.

Photo New York will never look like this again

"Understanding the Terrorist Attacks: Academic Perspectives" was an attempt to clarify reactions and discuss the implications of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The Twin Towers were symbols of globalization. These attacks were clearly meant to provoke the U.S., to anger, to spark a retaliation. As Université de Montréal professor Pierre Martin later commented, "This was an attack on not so much a state, but a state of mind."

There were easily twice as many people outside as filled the conference room, all hoping to get in, all wanting to make sense of the recent tragedy. The guards in blue stationed at the doors were a reminder of instability and the insecurity of crowds.

U.S. president George W. Bush had only just declared a "War on Terrorism." Many panellists talked about how the world has never seen a war like this, so it's unclear what to expect. McGill political scientist Mark Brawley said, "Now there is a focus. Everyone is talking about how much things have changed."

A war against terrorism is nebulous. America's military guide, "the Powell doctrine," Brawley added, "is that the U.S. doesn't use force or U.S. troops unless [there are] clear goals and strategies." Although there's no such clarity now, "the U.S. public feels they can't walk away."

Brawley predicts that the war will not consist of rapid strikes, nor be on a grand scale -- in other words, not what people expected in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. To the American public, "probably the action will look ineffective."

Panellists agreed that this will be a military conflict in which military tactics alone will not be adequate. This war will use law enforcement, border patrols, investigative powers and domestic force.

Middle East expert and McGill political scientist Rex Brynen feels certain that this "will not be a war in a conventional sense." This will be fought using intelligence methods, spies, and in a covert manner. There will be no clear endpoint. It will be more diffuse, more long term.

Brynen added that the essential question is important to recognize: "Is this a war on terrorism, or on these terrorists?"

Julian Schofield, a specialist in strategic studies at Concordia, pointed out that specific military action is very difficult. Carlos the Jackal, for instance, eluded the U.S. for years. Osama bin Laden, too, is a needle in a haystack. Schofield added that "this is the first crisis where there are no contingency plans."

Martin commented on what this event has meant to Canada. This past week has seen empathic declarations of "We are all Americans." Canadians are very used to differentiating themselves culturally from the neighbours to the south. But "our value differences now seem small," Martin said, and in the short term at least, the Canadian tendency of "defining oneself in opposition to another society will not be so appealing."

The tangible repercussions are of course, economic. Already the TSE is down. "Things have evolved at an extraordinary pace." Montreal will lose many jobs in the aerospace industry alone.

Also, our relationship with the U.S. could change. Martin predicts we will have to choose between our current autonomous border control policies, our immigration policies, and even our sovereignty, versus maintaining free trade arrangements with the U.S.

Université de Montréal professor Marie-Joelle Zahar discussed the impact this will have on the Middle East and Arab world.

Closer collaboration between the U.S. and Arab states in the wake of this terrorist attack could help Middle East peace prospects. "For example, there is a ceasefire now, and [Israeli foreign minister Shimon] Peres and [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat have agreed to meet." But American power is limited. "Even if American foreign policy were to change, [the U.S.] could not force peace on the Middle East."

In response to a question about the cultural perpetuation of widespread anti-U.S. feelings in the Middle East, Zahar cautioned, "There is not indoctrination, but ambivalence." Arabs do not hate America. After all, "the U.S. brings them jeans and cassettes."

According to the U.S., Middle East peace is a separate development than the war on terrorism. But of course, Zahar added, it is not so simple. "The United States must address the root causes of terrorism."

McGill political theorist Catherine Lu reminded us of the bigger picture -- that of morals and justice. This event has sorely tested the Western hopes of liberal globalization, and has led to discussion of victimhood, vengeance and retribution. There is "perhaps nothing more dangerous than a wounded superpower." Sadly, "a world has been lost and will be lost forever. People have been lost and will be lost forever."

Cooler heads should prevail over time, many believe. Although Americans' initial reaction is bloodthirsty, this must be measured by the yardstick of immediate anger. First reactions are never introspective, and we should remember that before we condemn emotional American responses.

On a note of hope, Brynen believes any U.S. military response will try to minimize civilian casualties, for both moral and practical reasons. The world has evolved, the panel agreed. People no longer support mass destruction. A half-century ago, few batted an eye over the bombing of Dresden. Yet when a civilian truck was accidentally blown up in Kosovo, there was a swift and significant U.S. public outcry against such carelessness.

How much in danger is the world from future terrorism? Realistically, Brynen pointed out the risk of copycat attacks, as well as the possibility that the terrorists could strike again in two to four weeks, to illustrate American impotence.

For its part, the audience seemed grateful for the chance to listen to some thoughtful, cool heads mull over what has happened and what might still occur.

Postdoctoral fellow Carol McQueen said she'd devoted most of a class she is teaching to talking about the disaster. Students thanked her, saying that too many professors were carrying on as normal. "Students need to talk about it," she said. "We all do."

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