By David Adams
As the culture of war, which has dominated human civilization for 5,000 years, begins to crumble, its contradictions become more evident. This is especially so in the matter of terrorism.
What is terrorism? Let us begin with some of the comments issued by Osama Bin Laden after the destruction of the World Trade Center:
“God Almighty hit the United States at its most vulnerable spot. He destroyed its greatest buildings. Praise be to God. Here is the United States. It was filled with terror from its north to its south and from its east to its west. Praise be to God. What the United States tastes today is a very small thing compared to what we have tasted for tens of years. Our nation has been tasting this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years ….
“One million Iraqi children have thus far died in Iraq although they did not do anything wrong. Despite this, we heard no denunciation by anyone in the world or a fatwa by the rulers’ ulema [body of Muslim scholars]. Israeli tanks and tracked vehicles also enter to wreak havoc in Palestine, in Jenin, Ramallah, Rafah, Beit Jala, and other Islamic areas and we hear no voices raised or moves made …
“As for the United States, I tell it and its people these few words: I swear by Almighty God who raised the heavens without pillars that neither the United States nor he who lives in the United States will enjoy security before we can see it as a reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Mohammed, may God’s peace and blessing be upon him.”
That is the kind of terrorism that we see in the news. But there are other kinds of terrorism as well. Consider the UN definition of terrorism on the website of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime:
“Terrorism is violence carried out by individual, group or state actors designed to frighten a non-combatant population for political reasons. The victims are usually chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a population in order to pass a message which may be intimidation, coercion and/or propaganda. It differs from assassination where the victim is the main target.”
According to this definition, nuclear weapons are a form of terrorism. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union held the war in a balance of terror, each aiming enough nuclear weapons at the other to potentially destroy the planet with a “nuclear winter.” This balance of terror went beyond the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by putting all people on the planet under a cloud of fear. Although there was some decrease in the deployment of nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War, hopes for nuclear disarmament were thwarted by the Great Powers who continue to deploy enough weapons to destroy the planet.
When asked to rule on nuclear weapons, while the World Court as a whole did not take a clear position, some of its members were eloquent. Judge Weeremantry condemned nuclear weapons in the following terms:
“The threat of use of a weapon which contravenes the humanitarian laws of war does not cease to contravene those laws of war merely because the overwhelming terror it inspires has the psychological effect of deterring opponents. This Court cannot endorse a pattern of security that rests upon terror …”
The issue is put clearly by the eminent peace researchers Johan Galling and Dietrich Fischer:
“If someone holds a classroom full of children hostage with a machine gun, threatening to kill them unless his demands are met, we consider him a dangerous, crazy terrorist. But if a head of state holds millions of civilians hostage with nuclear weapons, many consider this as perfectly normal. We must end that double standard and recognize nuclear weapons for what they are: instruments of terror.”
Nuclear terrorism is an extension of the 20th Century military practice of aerial bombardment. The aerial bombardments of Guernica, London, Milan, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki set a precedent in World War II of mass violence against noncombatant populations as a means of intimidation, coercion and propaganda.
In the years since World War II we have seen continued use of aerial bombardment which can be considered, in at least some cases, as a form of state terrorism. This includes the bombing with agent orange, napalm and fragmentation bombs against civilian as well as military targets by the Americans in Vietnam, the bombing of civilian areas in Panama by the United States, the bombing of Kosovo by NATO, the bombing of Iraq. And now the use of drones.
All sides claims to be right and that it is the other side who are the true terrorists. But in reality, they all employ terrorism, holding the civil populations of the other side in fear and producing, from time to time sufficient destruction to give substance to the fear. This is the contemporary manifestation of a culture of war that has dominated human societies since the beginning of history, a culture that is deep and dominant, but not inevitable.
The culture of peace and nonviolence, as it has been described and adopted in UN resolutions, provides us with a viable alternative to the culture of war and violence which underlies the terrorist struggles of our times. And the Global Movement for a Culture of Peace provides an historical vehicle for the profound transformation that is needed.
To achieve a culture of peace, it will be necessary to transform the principles and the organization of revolutionary struggle. Fortunately, there is a successful model, the Gandhian principles of nonviolence. Systematically, the principles of nonviolence reverse those of the culture of war employed by previous revolutionaries:
- Instead of a gun, the “weapon” is truth
- Instead of an enemy, one has only opponents whom you have not yet convinced of the truth, and for whom the same universal human rights must be recognized
- Instead of secrecy, information is shared as widely as possible
- Instead of authoritarian power, there is democratic participation (“people’s power”)
- Instead of male domination, there is equality of women in all decision-making and actions
- Instead of exploitation, both the goal and the means is justice and human rights for all
- Instead of education for power through force, education for power through active nonviolence
The culture of peace and nonviolence is proposed as the appropriate response to terrorism. Other responses tend to perpetuate the culture of war which provides the framework for terrorism; hence they cannot abolish terrorism.
Note: This an abbreviation of a much longer article written in 2006 and available on the internet at