After watching Carlos – a dramatization of the life of notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal – I had an epiphany. 

Carlos supposedly turns to terrorism because the wicked bourgeois imperialists don’t understand any language but violent resistance.  But the only reason Carlos achieves any success is that the Western democracies against whom he wages war have a long list of scruples.  At least back in the 70s:

1. They don’t hold terrorist suspects without solid evidence. 

2. They respect the rights of accused terrorists. 

3. They certainly don’t go after terrorists’ loved ones. 

4. Above all else, the “wicked bourgeois imperialists” faint at the sight of blood.  When Carlos says, “Give us a plane and a million dollars or we kill the hostages,” Western democracies give in.

It’s admittedly hard to figure out what the imperialist leaders are thinking.  Maybe they’re genuine humanitarians.  Maybe they’re just worried that the voting public will blame leaders for the bloodbaths they see, and fail to reward leaders for the bloodbaths they deter. The point is that Carlos’ terrorism only succeeds because the regimes he attacks play nice.  If they were as bad as Carlos says, they wouldn’t care how many innocents he murdered, and they’d freely use torture and collective responsibility to bring a handful of terrorists to their knees.

My epiphany: terrorism suffers from a fundamental contradiction.  Terrorism is either ineffective or pointless

In countries with few scruples and little sympathy for human suffering, terrorism doesn’t work.  Their governments just say “Do your worst,” and start arresting and torturing suspected terrorists and everyone who knows a suspected terrorist. 

In countries with many scruples and lots of sympathy for human suffering, terrorism is pointless.  Getting in front of t.v. cameras and appealing to your oppressors’ consciences is at least as effective as bombing pharmacies.  In fact, peaceful moral suasion is more effective, because you deprive your morally conflicted enemies of the excuse they need to bend their own rules to neutralize you.

The classic terrorist rebuttal is that, “Peaceful methods have already been tried and failed.”  But the obvious rejoinder is, “Failed compared to what?”  Yes, peaceful methods usually take a long time, and often disappoint.  But the track record of violence resistance is even more disappointing.  Terrorism is only “quicker” in the sense that it immediately makes bad situations worse.