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Homeland Security


Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?

08 November 2005

In a recent recent speech to U-S troops in the state of Virginia, President Bush renewed his determination to defeat terrorism by spreading freedom and democracy.

Is Democracy Enough?

Encouraging democracy alone is not likely to eliminate terrorism.  But according to Joseph Nye, professor of international relations at Harvard University, a lack of democracy contributes to the spread of terrorism.

"It's certainly not the major cause of terrorism.  I think that prospects for democracy and free expression may help to reduce some of the sources of anger.  But there are other sources of anger besides the absence of democracy."

There is no real consensus on what turns someone into a terrorist.   Experts point to a combination of social, political and economic factors.  There is wide agreement that hate and extremism are likely to grow in societies where young people are deprived of opportunities for education and a brighter future. 

Jerrold Post, professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs at George Washington University, says because open societies offer more opportunity they provide a less fertile breeding ground for terrorism.  He adds, "In societies where there is no access for a bright, educated youth to a successful career, many have been inspired by hate-mongering leaders to strike out in despair.  The more open societies are, the more opportunity there is.  This decreases the reservoir of resentment that is present." 

Home-grown Terrorism

Nevertheless, democratic societies are not immune to home-grown terrorism.  Martha Crenshaw, professor of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, gives the example of Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed 167 lives in 1995.   She says, "It is, of course, a contrast of how a democratic society could produce someone who was willing to kill hundreds of innocent civilians, in effect to protest something that his government had done that he did not like.  This shows you that even people who have always been in a democracy can still reach a point where they feel that for some reason they have to use violence against the regime."

Democracy and al-Qaida

Gregory Gausse, associate professor of international relations at the University of Vermont, says that in today's era of al-Qaida and global terrorism, the phenomenon is harder to combat than ever before, because it is no longer a matter of resolving domestic dissent within a single country, by opening up the political system through democracy.   

"Does the recruitment for al-Qaida dry up in a more democratic Middle East?  And there I have to say that I don't think so, because this is not a mass movement.  It's actually a very small movement in terms of numbers, and it seems to me that if you have charismatic leadership with an extreme but resonant political message, you can recruit people, the small number of people you need to conduct the kind of operations the al-Qaida conducts."

Professor Gausse adds that since accepting al-Qaida's political agenda is out of the question, the only way to answer it is through a combination of military force and police work.

Lessons for the Future

Harvard University's Joseph Nye, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration in the mid-'90s, argues that it is difficult to nurture democracy while employing military force.  He says, "I think that what we found out in Iraq is that it's not very easy to speed up this process by the use of force.  And I think that the Iraq example would not be seen as a model for the future."

Afghanistan is another example of the difficulties of bringing democracy to previously undemocratic countries.  Martha Crenshaw of Wesleyan University notes democracy can take a long time to develop.

"Many years ago, there was a book called The Civic Culture.  The book pointed out that in order to have a democracy, you've got to have more than institutions and rules and laws.  You have to have a citizenry that is educated and socialized into certain norms and values of reciprocity and tolerance.  And it's very hard to create that overnight."

Noted examples of success are Japan and Germany in the post-World War II era, when democratic ideals were coupled with rebuilding and assistance programs.

Bill Daddio, adjunct professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Georgetown University in Washington, says the post-war era saw a worldwide democratic explosion because it was shown that the democratic system was the only one capable of fulfilling people's aspirations.

"My belief is that what everyone wants is social justice.  They want to be able to live their life, leave it in the hands of their children and their family a little better than they way they found it, and they want to be safe.  But the next question is: what is the best system to get you there?  If you look at the world as it's developing in modern life, the system that has been most successful over the long run in getting you there has been democracy."

But he cautions that building such democracies is very costly and can take many years.

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