Which Is the Greater Evil -- Terrorism or Governments' Response to It?

Co-authored by Jim Sisco

Governments can maintain greater legitimacy among their populace and be more effective combating terrorism if they harness the collective power of their people in fighting it, rather than operating under the premise that it is their people who are the source of the problem. Political leaders often use terrorism, or the threat of terrorism, to repress civil liberties, censor media outlets, and promote their own political and military agendas. In some countries, the mere threat of a terrorist attack has become a means to manipulate nationalist sentiment, which enables political leaders to pursue their own agendas. The consequences are usually negative for citizens, and this raises the question, which is the greater threat: the prospect of a terrorist attack or a government's response to it?

When governments use terrorism to incite nationalist sentiment and exceed previously established limits of power, citizens accept the inevitable decrease of their civil liberties in exchange for greater security. They are also hesitant to object to government-sponsored initiatives under the rubric of 'combating terrorism' because it is considered 'unpatriotic' to do otherwise. This gives governments a freer hand to exert their authority in ways that were unimaginable before a terrorist threat. This also gives governments an opportunity to polarize segments of populations deemed to be either 'with' the government or 'with' terrorists - without a common middle ground.

In the 15 years since 9/11, only a few terrorist attacks have been successful in the U.S., but the change in how governments and citizens approach and respond to one another has changed dramatically. The U.S. Patriot Act and UK Counter-Terrorism Act are useful examples of how governments increased their police powers and reduced civil liberties in counter-terrorism efforts. More importantly, they provided a model for other governments to emulate in order to implement heavy-handed repressive strategies. The Patriot Act was introduced shortly after 9/11 and is criticized today as an assault on civil liberties, but was palatable at the time. Subsequent revisions of the Act included the authorization of wiretap searches and surveillance, directed at the heart of public privacy. In the UK, extensions to its Counter-Terrorism Act granted officials the power to deprive individuals of their British citizenship if they were suspected of extremist activity.

The advent of global terrorism has raised the level of repression by governments, from Russia and China to the Middle East. In foreign countries, government and political agendas tend to coincide with repression of civil liberties, while simultaneously seeking to repress political dissonance. Apart from an environment of pervasive fear and tension, the biggest casualty is often free speech, which is under attack in a number of ways; An increasing number of state and non-state actors are censoring free speech through intimidation and assassination. There is also the notion that anyone, or anything, is fair game, meaning that ethnicity and religion have become equated with political beliefs, under the premise that it all falls under the broad spectrum of contributing to 'terrorism'.

Bahrain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia provide excellent examples of this strategy at work. Bahrain recently revoked the citizenship of the Sunni kingdom's most prominent Shia cleric. Similarly, in Saudi Arabia, human rights activist Abdulaziz al-Shubaily was sentenced to jail in 2014 based on a "repressive counter-terrorism law" for speaking out about the regime's use of torture. These are not exclusive to the Gulf region, of course. In the Philippines, president-elect Rodrigo Duterte successfully rallied public fear to propel him to the presidency. Initially, he focused on drug dealers as targets of assassination, but added journalists to the list in an attempt to silence dissent against him and the state's pending enhanced police powers. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, more than 8,500 people were recently arrested in a countrywide security operation aimed at combating extremist violence against religious minorities and secular activists. Political opposition groups claim that law-enforcement agencies rounded up opposition activists under the pretext of fighting terrorism, which authorities subsequently denied.

The age of global terrorism has coincided with heightened police powers and the routine killing of political activists and journalists. Journalists tend to be a common target and face severe punishment for exercising freedom of speech. In Azerbaijan, journalist Khadija Ismayilova was jailed for reporting truthfully about regime corruption. Journalists or activists who speak up about corruption are punished, and opposition political clerics may be assassinated. In Russia, routine disappearances and executions of journalists have become standard operating procedure (it has been estimated that between 1993 and 2009, more than 150 journalists were murdered). Egypt reached a tipping point when its leadership announced that "facts should be subordinate to national interests". Since 2011, 11 journalists have been killed there; by contrast, between 1992 and 2011 only one journalist was killed.

Terrorism policies in Britain have compelled many British Muslims to leave their homes and relocate permanently. Britain's "Prevent Terrorism" agenda encouraged teachers, service industry workers, and health care providers to report anyone suspected of radical views. Since the announcement, hate crimes against British Muslims have tripled across England and doubled in London. In this case, the threat of terrorism is used to justify discrimination, resulting in ongoing repression of Muslims in Britain, similar to the discrimination faced by Shi'ites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

Governments' approaches to combat terrorism have generally proven to be ineffective, and have failed make the lives of citizens safer. Diminished civil liberties, biased media, and allocation of financial resources coincide with an inability to hold governments and their militaries accountable. Rather than viewing terrorism as a purely national security issue, a variety of governments and leaders - from democracies to monarchies to authoritarian regimes - have instead seized the opportunity to tighten their grip on power, reduce civil liberties, and crack down on opponents. Terrorism has promoted self-interest among governments as well as created an environment ripe for the advancement of political agendas. Since many citizens around the world are either too afraid to object, or lack the ability to do so, terrorism has in some cases served to perpetuate the very political forces it claims to oppose.

While there are a number of countries where the opposite is true, just imagine what type of societies governments could create in the age of global terrorism if they generated greater employment opportunities for youth, encouraged freer speech, and fostered an environment conducive to transparency - on their own part - rather than repression as a response. As things stand now, the majority of the world's governments have adopted just the opposite approach.

While 'hugging a terrorist' will certainly not result in dramatic social transformation, it is emblematic of what can be achieved with society's worst terrorist offenders. If such an approach can have such success with them, there is a good chance it can have the desired effect more broadly, if it were implemented with adequate resources and resolve. The question becomes whether, at this juncture, we may be in a position to turn the tide, or whether the die is cast. Many of the governments that have pursued repression and curtailed civil liberties have found that the only real result is the need for more of the same. In doing so, they hand the terrorist an unnecessary victory.

*Jim Sisco is President of ENODO Global. Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and co-author of "Global Risk Agility and Decision Making".