Contemporary Terrorism

José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett

Head of the Project at MOOC Chile
Lawyer, Universidad de Chile. Doctor Honoris Causa, by the Universities of Notre Dame and City University of New York.
José Zalaquett

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Recent high-profile attacks have put a new note of urgency on the combat of terrorism. They include a parade of horrific executions of hostages carried out by ISIS, recorded and uploaded in the social networks; the massacre of the journalists of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and the mysterious death of the Argentinian prosecutor who investigated the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated in Latin America. These untold horrors have occurred as part of the latest phase of development of terrorism, a phase whose beginnings may be traced back to the Al Qaeda-led attack against the United States of September 11, 2001.

Terrorism, understood as an attack against civilians or indiscriminate in nature, for political or ideological purposes, is a very old phenomenon. Some scholars mention examples dating back to before the Christian era. The second phase would correspond to the use of explosives by anarchists who opposed the Zarist regime in Russia (previously, during the French Revolution the term ‘Terror’ was coined to refer to an extremely repressive governmental policy). A third period started in the 70s. It is characterized by the violent action of political groups embracing and anti-colonial or an anti-establishment ideology, particularly in countries of Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East. In this stage, terrorism took advantage of the vulnerability and anonymity of large cities; further, new and powerful explosives were developed and they became available more easily; finally, the spread of TV favored a much greater publicity of the terrorist acts.

The latest period in the historical development of terrorism is the one the world is going through at present and since September 2001. This phase shows a growing internationalization of the terrorist movements and ‘causes’; a readiness of terrorists to accept self immolation or martyrdom, most commonly on the grounds of their particular interpretation of religious beliefs; a display of unprecedented cruelty; access to sophisticated means of warfare ; and an even more intense use of mass media, including social networks.

Vis-à-vis these developments the international community is rather confounded. Some propose to combat terrorism by all means, unfettered by human rights considerations. On the other extreme, there are those who are paralyzed.

We do not purport to have a clear answer to this conundrum. Yet, it is in order to try and outline the characteristics of any possible solution: first, and this is an obvious statement, the solution must be effective. Secondly, it must be generated by a deep yet urgent process of deliberation involving the community of nations, civic society and experts. A clear corollary to the first characteristic is that in the long term fundamental values ought not to be sacrificed for the sake of ‘effectiveness’; true, common people long for security and to put an end to these horrors. Yet, a shortsighted effectiveness may result in a backlash.

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