The Cancer of Terrorism

Terrorism is the cancer of the modern world. No state is immune to it. It is a dynamic organism which attacks the healthy flesh of the surrounding society. It has the essential hallmark of malignant cancer: unless treated, and drastically, its growth is inexorable, until it poisons and engulfs the society on which it feeds and drags it down to destruction.

Modern terrorism dates from 1968, when the PLO formally adopted terror and mass murder as its primary policy. Terrorism was thus able to draw on the immense financial resources of the Arab oil states, and on the military training programs of the Soviet Union and of its satellites, Cuba, South Yemen, Vietnam and North Korea. Over 1,000 PLO killers have been trained in the Soviet Union alone. Moreover, from 1970-1982, the PLO operated a quasi-occupation of Lebanon, and was thus able to enjoy, in practice, all the advantages of its own sovereign territory. It acquired the weaponry of a sizeable modern army, and set up terrorist training camps of its own, used as facilities by the Red’ Brigades, the IRA and a score of other killer gangs throughout the world.

This physical growth of the terrorist cancer was accompanied by a progressive elevation in its moral status. Yasser Arafat ceased to be a mere gangster leader and became, in effect, a terrorist Statesman. He moved around the world with increasing diplomatic pomp, and was greeted, on a level of moral equality, by more and more world leaders. He and his organization finally achieved, at the United Nations, a position of privilege granted to no other body not a sovereign state. But perhaps his greatest moral triumph was to be received, and photographed being greeted, by the Pope—his Holiness and his Depravity together.

Inevitably, with the physical and moral growth of the terrorist international, came a growth in its military capacity. From the ability to kill individuals grew the ability to kill scores, then hundreds, now thousands. Not merely the PLO but its junior allies began to handle munitions on a prodigious scale. It is now common for the IRA, for instance, to stage killings involving two or three tons of high explosives. International terrorists operating in a score of countries now have the power to shoot down aircraft, destroy armored vehicles and destroy heavily-protected security posts. There is the danger, frighteningly obvious to all of us, that terrorists will eventually possess nuclear weapons, but a more immediate risk is that they will secure—perhaps already have secured—devastating modern equipment now moving into the inventories of official armies: high-speed machine pistols firing 1200 rounds a minute and almost soundless; lightweight grenade-launchers and mortars, squirtless flamethrowers, short-range portable anti-tank, shoulder fired multi-rocket launchers and, most alarming of all, the new generation of guided missile-throwers which have long ranges, are highly accurate, and can be carried and fired by one man or woman.

At whom will these devastating new weapons be aimed? The question is pointless. They are aimed at the world, at civilized society everywhere. They will be used not merely to destroy security forces, but ordinary civilians, men, women, children. For, just as there seems to be no upper limit to the terrorist’s arsenal, so there is no lowest depth beyond which the terrorist cannot sink in his moral declension. So ask not for whom the terrorist bell tolls: it tolls for thee, and thee, and thee—for decent, innocent people everywhere.

But in the growth of the terrorist cancer, .a still more sinister aspect even than the expansion of its arsenals, is the arrival of the first terrorist states. If Soviet Russia and four of its satellites actively train and arm terrorist movements, we now have the phenomenon of two regimes—Iran and Libya—which constitute terrorist states in themselves. These states do not merely finance, arm and train foreign terrorists, providing them with bases and havens; they operate their own official machinery of international terrorism.

Both Iran and Libya now deploy, as part of their official armed forces and government machinery, assisted and provisioned by their embassies and diplomats, heavily armed, highly-trained and totally ruthless gangs of killers, who roam the world seeking out and destroying political or religious opponents—or mere critics—and in the process killing and maiming bystanders and destroying property throughout the civilized West. These states conduct such policies of government terrorism while still enjoying all the privileges of sovereign status and all the protection of international law—membership in the UN and its agencies, access to the IMF and World Bank, to the International Court and the Vienna and Hague Conventions.

Iran and Libya illustrate the extent to which the terrorist cancer has established its grip on the world’s health, and our paralytic failure to treat the disease. Let me remind you that four years ago Iran committed a gigantic crime of state terrorism: it seized all the occupants of the embassy of the United States—the greatest power on earth—and held them hostage. That crime goes unrepented and unpunished. Yet Iran still operates privileged embassies throughout the world to service its killers. It is still a member of the UN, where it can defend its policies of mass murder. It is now destroying the world’s shipping in the Gulf—maritime terrorism on a gigantic scale—or to give it the old name, piracy. Will that go unpunished too?

Or again, two months ago, one or more professional state terrorists, living in and working from the Libyan Embassy in London, murdered a young British policewoman, in broad daylight and in front of hundreds of people. Under the protection of the Vienna Convention, on whose provision Colonel Qadafi insisted down to the last comma, the killer or killers were allowed to leave the country without search or investigation. Here was a murderous dictator who has sponsored terrorism all over the world, who operates his own terror-squads, organizes and finances others, who has caused, extended or prolonged no less than ten civil and interstate wars in Africa, who is responsible for the deaths of at least a million people, and who openly proclaims his contempt for international order, here he is able to take the maximum possible advantage of the conventions which govern behavior between law-abiding states.

Thus, with the emergence of the Terrorist State, the cancer has spread to the point where it is multiplying its cells from within the framework of world order. The inmates are taking over the asylum; the doctors are helping to spread the bacillus. There is, then, no alternative to drastic treatment.

I have three propositions to put forward—the first on the moral level, the second on the legal level, the third on the military level. On the moral level, let us clear our minds of cant. By this I mean let us reject the ambivalence with which civilized people often approach the problem of terrorism. They condemn terrorism in general and on principle, but there is often one particular group of terrorists which arouses their sympathy, for historical, radical, ethnic or ideological reasons, and whom they are not prepared to describe as terrorists, but rather as freedom-fighters and guerrillas. One case is a small section of the Irish community in the United States and its sympathy for the IRA. The IRA is beyond question one of the most evil and destructive terrorist movements on earth. But it could not exist without the regular financial support it receives from some otherwise law-abiding and peaceful American-Irish.

So I would counter this ambivalence in the civilized world by a simple proposition: there is no such person as a “good” terrorist, anywhere, at any time, in any circumstances. In fighting terrorism, there cannot be qualifications. Terrorism must be fought with the same absolute rigor with which the civilized powers once fought privacy and the international slave-trade. There were no “good” pirates. There were no “good” slavers. There can be no “good” gunmen.

And let us note, at the same time, that the gunmen, the terrorists, do not, and by their nature cannot, achieve legitimate political aims. Under no circumstances can democratic societies be the beneficiaries of terrorism. The only gainers are anarchy on the one hand, and totalitarianism on the other, the twin Frankensteins which threaten to overwhelm the democratic West.

Let me give you two examples of what I mean. The modern age of terrorism began in 1968 with the PLO. Today, 16 years later, the PLO and the other terrorist movements it has succoured, have racked up an appalling total of lives extinguished and property destroyed. But how far has the PLO progressed towards achieving its political ends? It has made no progress at all—it has, in fact, regressed. The Palestinian state is further away than ever. The Israeli state is stronger and more firmly established than in 1968. The victims have been the Arab States which harbored the gunmen. Jordan saved itself in 1970 because it threw them out. Lebanon perished because it lacked the courage to do the same. That is always the pattern: if the only ultimate beneficiaries of terrorism are totalitarian regimes, the chief victims are weak-minded democracies which lack the perception and courage to treat terrorism as a mortal enemy.

Again, take the IRA. They have killed over a thousand people, most of them their own countrymen, since 1968. But the unitary Irish state is as far away as before, and they themselves constitute the chief obstacle to its realization. Meanwhile, what has happened to the Irish Republic, which has throughout observed that fatal ambivalence toward terrorism which I have described? Its economy is in ruins, the very fabric of its state is under threat, and—since the IRA finances itself through the drug-trade—Ireland now has the biggest drug problem in Western Europe. No harm of any consequence has been inflicted on Britain—it is Ireland and her people who are the victims of the men with guns.

Now let us look briefly at the legal level. If there are no ‘`good” terrorists, it follows that civilized states must act collectively against all of them. Of course, the UN is useless—terrorist states are among its honored members. NATO is inappropriate. I put no faith in the European Anti-Terrorist Convention, even if everyone could be persuaded to sign it. Indeed, I put no faith in any formal treaty arrangement—you end up with a Vienna Convention. But I have a lot of faith in practical, informal and flexible arrangements between the major civilized powers.

We have to grasp the fact that to hurt one terrorist movement is to hurt them all. So I would like to see a coordinated, well-financed, informal and secret effort by the major civilized powers to discover and exchange information about movements, routes, identities, weapons stocks, methods, plans, codes, safe houses and bases of all terrorists everywhere. And it follows that we must be prepared to devise and carry through concerted operations. The hydra is less likely to survive if struck simultaneously in several places. All the legitimate powers must have their trained anti-terrorist units, and they must be accustomed to acting in concert.

For the terrorist, there can be no hiding places. The terrorist must never be allowed to feel safe anywhere in the world. He must be made to fear he is being followed not just by agents of the government against which he is conspiring, but the agents of many governments, coordinated by a common system. A terrorist kept constantly on the defensive is an ineffective terrorist.

No hiding places—and that means, sooner or later, that the civilized powers must be prepared to act directly against the terrorist states. Looking back over the last two decades, we can claim some notable successes against individual terrorist movements. But these have been essentially defensive successes. Only on one occasion has a major offensive blow been dealt against the system of international terrorism itself. That was in 1982, when Israel crossed into

Lebanon and expelled the PLO by force. The truth is, by having the moral and physical courage to violate a so-called sovereign frontier, and by placing the moral law above the formalities of state rights, Israel was able for the first time to strike at the heart of the cancer, to arrest its growth, and to send it into headlong retreat. That is the kind of thing I mean by drastic treatment.

I believe we should study the example set by the Israelis in 1982, and debate in what circumstances, and by what means, the civilized West as a whole will be prepared to act physically against the terrorist states in the future. I think it must be made clear to the master-killers of Teheran and Tripoli that there can be no ultimate hiding place for them either, that the arm of civilization is long and sinewy, and may be stretched out to take them by the throat. Let us in the West consider these possibilities. Let us have no formal treaties or arrangements. But let us debate privately among ourselves when, and if so how, we will be prepared to discard the obstacle of sovereignty and national frontiers, behind which the state killers shelter. Let us calmly and discreetly amass and train the forces which will be necessary for such police-action, and discuss how we will deal with the political and international consequences. Let us decide in good time the limits beyond which terrorist states will not be allowed to pass, and let us perfect a military instrument of fearful retribution when and if those limits ever are crossed.

I believe the knowledge that the civilized world has the courage and means to act in this manner will itself serve as a deterrent to state terrorism. I stress the word courage, and the physical preparedness without which courage is useless. For the cancer of terrorism feeds on weakness in all its forms—on all the hesitations and divisions and ambiguities inseparable from free, liberal societies. We must put these weaknesses behind us, and act, in Lincoln’s words, with malice towards none—except the killers; with charity for all—especially their innocent victims; above all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right. We must, as the Book of Joshua puts it, “Be strong and of good courage”, for it is the combination of strength and courage which alone can arrest and destroy the terrorist cancer.

Paul Johnson


Educated at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. A prolific writer, his books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis.