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Talking to terrorists?

By Mike Kent - posted Friday, 6 January 2006

Phillip Adams in The Australian newspaper (13/12/2005) wrote of the seemingly irrational danger represented by terrorists with no clear demands. I believe he has critically misunderstood the changing terrorist response to the positions set forth by the very governments that they threaten. Before I begin my response however, let me make it clear that I do not support terrorism. Similarly I don’t support aerial bombardment or any other form of violence, any loss of life is a tragedy. When dialogue between opposing sides breaks down and is replaced by violence in order to solve disputes, suffering always results. Almost without exception that suffering is not born by those who made the decision to move from words to violence.

As Adams notes, terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It has been around in different forms for many years and directed towards many different goals. However the current approach to terrorism is relatively new. During the reign of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan western governments began to develop a standard response to terrorist threats. We were told that “we do not negotiate with terrorists”. This was in contrast to the prior response of governments where negotiating with terrorists, especially to save the lives of hostages, could be seen as reasonable, even responsible, behaviour.

This change in response was in many ways good politics. It makes national leaders appear strong in the face of the often complex challenges represented by terrorism. If lives are lost, it is the terrorists’ fault, not that of a government that tried, but failed to save lives. It is rarely the politicians whose lives are on the line.


Terrorism, along side the increasingly conflated notion of guerrilla warfare, is the tactics of the weak against the strong. By the total rejection of the legitimisation of these tactics national governments, as the strong, are able to legitimise their hold on the levers of violence, and at the same time de-legitimise the position of those with whom they are in conflict. This generates a world where those without an air force or dominant army are not able to legitimately attack their enemies to further their political ends, while, as we have seen in Iraq, those who do have no limit on this power.

This also leads to the rationalisation that the use of “legitimate” force as a response to terrorism cannot be questioned. Those who do are denounced for seeing an incorrect “moral equivalence” between the illegal activities of terrorists and the legitimate use of force by a national government. The death and destruction caused by outlawed terrorists justifies the death and destruction, often on a greater scale, caused by legitimate governments. Any idea that national governments should be held to a higher standard than criminal terrorists is conveniently sidestepped. Having been seen as effective, this “no negotiation” response has now become the default response from most national governments. Russia would rather see a school full of young children in the middle of a gunfight than negotiate with terrorists, and which western government is now in a position to legitimately criticise such a hard line?

This decision to take negotiation off the table has serious consequences. Terrorists now know, in advance, that negotiation is not a possible outcome from their activities. If there is no option for negotiating then what is the point in terrorism that has demands. If you are going to risk your life to hijack an aircraft in order to bargain, there is no point if your opponents will never bargain with you. Terrorist strategy adapts to these new conditions. Terrorism with no hope of negotiation becomes more violent as the spectacle supersedes the hostage negotiation as a way to further the cause.

Terrorists who accept that there can be no escape must be willing to die, and as such, are far more dangerous. While once a hostage was taken to bargain, now the same hostage is murdered as horrific theatre on the Internet. Aircraft full of passengers are no longer used as bargaining chips, they are flown into buildings.

National governments have changed policies as a response to terrorism before. Adams notes the relative successes of the Mau Mau in Kenya, the ANC in South Africa, and EOKA in Cyprus among others. In a climate where governments will explicitly not negotiate, a terrorist actually presenting demands may serve to strengthen a government’s resolve to not meet those demands, and they may be better served by actions only. In short, we stopped listening, and then they stopped talking. Or rather stopped talking to us. Bin Laden and his ilk still talk and manipulate the media, but the message is directed at their supporters, not their opponents.

This withdrawal of communications has effects further down the chain of violence. Whereas once an aircraft full of hostages might have been expected to obey the commands of a highjacker, it only took until later in the day on September 11, 2001 for the hostages on United Airlines Flight 93 to realise that the hijackers had stopped negotiating, and that the rules had changed. Threatening people with death is of limited use if they believe you will kill them anyway. Thus the cycle continues. Governments stop talking, the terrorists stop talking, and now the terrorised stop talking. Words are off the table, and violence and death are the only solutions open to all.


In the current climate of a perpetual war on terrorism, surely there must be a better way.

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About the Author

Mike Kent recently completed his doctoral dissertation at Murdoch University’s School of Media, Communication and Culture. His research and writing focuses on the Internet, literacy, and access to technology.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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