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From the November 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 11)

Feeding on Horror ... and Mistakes

Carlos Basombrío Iglesias, Ideele (monthly magazine of the Legal Defense Institute), Lima, Peru, Sept. 13, 2001.

The legitimate indignation of humanity in the face of the horrendous events in the United States is increasing with every passing hour. Thousands of innocent people killed, tens of thousands of families destroyed, and a sensation of emptiness and insecurity torments hundreds of millions of people.

Without a doubt, we are facing the most important event thus far in the 21st century and perhaps the event that will have the greatest influence on the world since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Politics, economics, international relations, and even the daily lives of people will not be the same in the future. Unfortunately, it is possible that what is to come is even worse than what we have already seen, and it will affect everyone who inhabits the planet in different ways.

Regardless of how small our role, all of us must try to make a contribution, despite our bewilderment and anger, to avoid the risk of making mistakes that feed the monster. While it is true that terrorism in all its variants grows strong and feeds on our fears, it is also true that it will find fertile ground to grow if we are unable to add a dose of calmness and intelligence to our firmness.

The citizens of countries that have suffered the demented actions of terrorist groups capable of indiscriminately attacking the civilian population, which is the case in Peru, have experienced how easy it is to make mistakes under circumstances of emotional upheaval. This is something that the fanatical terrorists want so that they can get stronger and somehow try to legitimize their crimes.
Some reflections on this issue:

1. There are no easy or immediate solutions. Who could have imagined a few days ago that a commercial aircraft filled with passengers could become a terrorist weapon? When there is an absolute lack of scruples and a complete disregard for human life, including the terrorists’ own lives, it is very difficult, maybe even impossible, to ensure that there will not be terrorist attacks. You only need a few willing people to provoke incalculable damage. It is impossible to protect everyone and everything all the time. Whoever maintains that there are immediate solutions to terrorism is lying to the people, and the cost of that mistake could be immense.

2. It isn’t enough to have immensely superior military strength. What good has it done for the United States, having the strongest military in the world, to prevent actions like this? Undoubtedly, very little. When a poisonous spider bites someone, shooting a bazooka at the spider does not help the victim. Furthermore, the spider is very good at hiding himself in the victim’s own clothing.

3. Revenge is not a solution. People want reprisals— “that we do the same thing or worse to them.” The problem is that “them” is so vague. A country? A people? A culture? A religion? A race? A massive attack on the civilian populations of countries that could be protecting terrorists will feed the hate and resentment this phenomenon lives on. It will be an attack on everyday, average folks, like those affected in New York or Washington, who just happened to have been born in a different place in the world.

As the people and the leaders of the United States identify Arabs or Muslims as the enemy they need to fight, we are talking about billions of human beings, something like one of every five people on Earth. Are they the enemy? Or is the enemy the fanatical extremist minorities who look for legitimacy among these peoples as the only possible option? The opposite of what they do needs to be done. The extremists need to be isolated, building the broadest political coalition possible to combat them. It needs to be an alliance that, for justice and efficiency, includes the majority of the Arab world.

4. We need to defend the values that are being attacked and not destroy them in the name of fighting the enemy. In Peru, the Shining Path proposed destroying the “bourgeois state,” a profoundly imperfect democratic regime but one that we tried to move forward. A combination of police intelligence and the rejection of organized peasants defeated the Shining Path. Nevertheless, the official history maintains—and we have to admit that many Peruvians believe it—that the terrorists lost because democracy was ended and human rights violated.

We need to reflect for a moment on this issue: If it is necessary to do away with democracy—which is what terrorists want—to defeat terrorism, then in some ways they are achieving their objective. In the developed countries, freedoms are more consolidated and democracy more established, so this dilemma does not exist, but there may be manifestations of xenophobia, intolerance, restrictions on immigrants, violent aggression against minorities, etc.—conduct that goes against the values we need in order to defend against terrorist aggression.

5. Intelligence and information are essential. These fanatical groups need to be found and deactivated before they act and not after, when the tragedies have already occurred. Here in Peru, effective police work led to the arrest nine years ago of [Shining Path leader] Abimael Guzmán, who headed an organization that seemed invulnerable and unstoppable. It collapsed like a house of cards. In the face of failures by the CIA, everything seems to point to an agency that is not efficiently carrying out its role. Its work needs to be thoroughly redesigned. We recall, however, that intelligence cannot be separated from other areas and that the possibility of receiving quality information increases or decreases exponentially depending on the support or rejection the population exhibits for terrorist groups and those pursuing them.

These reflections do not point to a prescription. The only idea here that cannot be refuted is that there are no easy solutions. Whatever happens, the world will not be the same after Sept. 11. And hopefully we will not do something worse, giving the monster exactly what he wants, feeding him with our mistakes.

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