Midweek Review
Reducing the two reservoirs of terrorism

by Jehan Perera
Even as they unfolded the terrible events in the United States came straight into Sri Lakan homes through the instant reach of television. It did not matter that the attacks had taken place half way round the globe more than ten thousand miles away. For most human beings empathy with the suffering of others comes before the making of political judgments. It is likely that the vast majority of Sri Lankans felt anguish at the human suffering and immense destruction they were witnessing. They could perhaps identify with the horror better than most other peoples across the globe. They had seen two of their own tallest buildings gutted by fire and collapsing five years ago in similar circumstances, during the suicide bombing of the Central Bank by an explosives-laden truck.

But there were also those who did make political judgments as they watched the scenes of destruction in New York and Washington, DC. They saw not only the burning buildings and loss of life, they also saw different lessons in it.

Some saw the lesson to a government of a country that has urged the Sri Lankan government to negotiate with an organisation that had committed similar terrorist attacks against civilian targets. Others saw a lesson to a government that had banned the organisation fighting for their rights as being terrorist and delegitimising their struggle. And still others saw a lesson to the government of a country that tacitly supported terrorist measures by allied governments against civilian populations elsewhere in the world.

Whatever the political judgments may be, the terrorist attack that brought down the World Trade Centre in New York and a part of the Pentagon in Washington DC was both unexpected and reprehensible. Hardly anyone would be evil enough to imagine that a planeload of civilians would be used as a weapon to destroy buildings full of civilians. What cannot be imagined cannot be protected against. It is also next to impossible to be constantly on guard against those who are prepared to die to achieve their objectives, as the Sri Lankan military have found time and again. The question is how can this evil be eradicated or at least contained. The most principled, and facile, answer would be that situations that provide a breeding ground for terrorism should not be permitted to arise. The grievances of people should be nipped in the bud and not be allowed to fester. But in too many situations, as in Sri Lanka, such timely action is not taken. There is an absence of foresight and wisdom as late President J.R. Jayewardene once confessed of himself in relation to the country’s ethnic conflict. The United States is the greatest military and economic power in the world today. How it responds to the injury to itself will determine the course of the world in the days and years to come. It appears that the dominant voice emanating from the United States at this time is a call for revenge and retribution. That is natural, and represents the emotional and reactive side of human beings. But it must not be allowed to prevail, for if it does the world will become a more evil place for all of humanity.

Two reservoirs

When LTTE suicide bombers attacked Sri Lanka’s only international airport two months ago, and destroyed half of its airbus fleet, it destroyed the equivalent of 10 percent of the country’s annual income. Further, with Western countries issuing travel advisories that the entire country was akin to a war zone, the country’s tourist and exportbased industries fell to their knees and made tens of thousands unemployed.

At this time of trial, the US ambassador in Sri Lanka, Ashley Wills, urged the Sri Lankan government to negotiate with the LTTE. He probably knew that this was not what the emotional and reactive side of those who were at the receiving end of that attack wanted to hear. But as a friend of the country, he probably also saw that a Sri Lankan military response at that time, or in the future, would only serve to increase the reservoir of hate on the other side of the divide. It would harden the sentiment of those who volunteered for suicide missions.

By contrast, when the United States itself has been savagely hit, the sentiment seems to be different. There is no talk of negotiations, if not with the terrorists who committed the crime, with those representing the larger political movements they espouse. Some leading American commentators, such as Lance Morrow writing in Time magazine’s prestigious Essay column have extolled the virtues of rage and retribution. Those who disagree, he has said, are too philosophical for decent company. But though it may be hard to accept at a time like this, the eternal wisdom is that hatred does not cease by hatred, but by love alone (Dhammapada). Organisations that harness suicide bombers to do their work require the reservoir of hate. The usage of military means to resolve problems is the surest way of increasing the reservoir of hate. Drying up the reservoir of hatred require the adoption of non-violent and non-military means of conflict resolution. Most often the use of military means is clumsy and results in civilians suffering the most. This increases the reservoir of hatred from which new suicide bombers may be recruited.

On this basis the mobilising of its mighty aircraft carriers, arsenals of cruise missiles and millions of soldiers for war by the United States as the way to combat terrorism is likely to increase the reservoirs of hatred in the world from which suicide bombers are recruited. Bombing countries that can hardly govern themselves is not likely to yield positive results. As the British commentator Robert Harris has written, every ton on bombs dropped on the fundamentalists’ bases and on the people of the states that harbour them, is likely to create more martyrs, more fanatics and more terrorist atrocities.

It is true that most militant organisations outgrow the original (political) causes that justified their creation. After a point of time, they become organisations whose end is primarily their own survival and the expression of their own hate. They outgrow the cause of the people they originally set out to vindicate. Therefore, it might seem that a military response to them is appropriate and, indeed, the only way to stop them. But the dilemma is that any effort at violent conflict resolution is likely to spill over to the civilian population, and thereby re-ignite the original grievances. Therein is the trap of violence.


In taking action against the suspected terrorist leader Osama Bin-Laden, the United States needs also to bear in mind that it was they who once nurtured and sustained him during its cold war against the Soviet Union. They created the monster, even as India once gave training and sustenance to the Tamil militant movement in Sri Lanka, and to the LTTE which killed its own soldiers and assassinated its former prime minister. It is ironic that the creations of these big powers should finally turn against them.

The injustice of causing so-called collateral damage to civilians in attempting to defeat their own creations needs to be borne in mind. The full compensation of these civilians should be uppermost in any military campaign carried out against the terrorist organisation. That could to some degree reduce the reservoir of hate that would stem from the envisaged US-led military action in Afghanistan and other countries suspected of harbouring terrorists.

The United States needs also to draw on the experience of countries like Sri Lanka which have endured years of terrorism and counter-terrorism and have found what works and what does not work. After nearly 18 years of fighting against the LTTE giving primacy to military means, both the ruling People’s Alliance and opposition UNP have realised the lack of positive results flowing from this course of military action. With the business community becoming the latest entrant into the peace movement, the main political parties are now endeavoring to give priority to political means of ending the conflict.

The international community, led by the United States, needs to assist in this process in making a success out of Sri Lanka’s peace efforts. A success even in a little country like Sri Lanka, distant though it is from the United States, can offer the world the hope that terrorist violence can be ended peacefully.

But governments of most countries are extremely self-centred, and the United States is no exception. They may steeply tax their own citizens to ensure equity within their own countries, but they give only a pittance of it to those who are at the borders of survival outside their countries. In a similar manner Western countries are very concerned about protecting civil liberties in their own countries, such as the right of their citizens to form associations and to collect money for various causes. This is the reason they give when asked why they do not clamp down on the collection of funds for terrorist activities. They do not seem to care very much if the civil liberties they protect within their own countries leads to the fostering of terrorism in other countries.

Already, the governments of most countries are heavily dependent on the concessionary financial flows from international financial institutions, and can be pressurised to adapt their policies in the direction of conflict resolving practices.

Perhaps the terrorist strikes against the United States will now make the international community view with a more critical eye the international funding of organisations that use violence to achieve political objectives. That would be the way to reduce the reservoir of funds that, together with the reservoir of hate, sustains terrorism in the world.