On not negotiating with terrorists

27 July 2011


What does it mean when an government, military, or police official makes a public statement that there will be no negotiation with terrorists? I think intuitively we think of a situation as it is unfolding, and the sense of “negotiation” involved is that of a crisis/hostage negotiator. This is the most obvious paradigm of negotiation with terrorists, but it is not the only negotiation that is possible.

When a society changes itself in response to terrorism, this is essentially a social negotiation with terrorists. There may be no talks held between government officials and representatives of a terrorist organization, but an indirect form of negotiation takes place in the media. This is the sense of “negotiation with terrorists” that is captured in the film Munich, when, after an exchange of targeted bombings, the character Carl says, “They’re talking to us. We’re in dialogue now.” (scene 107) This is a “dialogue” that takes place in newspaper headlines.

After the 11 September 2001 simultaneous terrorist attacks on US targets, significant changes in daily life appeared in the US. The most obvious result was the increase in airport security. Despite some grumbling and a few high profile complaints, for the most part people accept this with equanimity. It is seen as the price that you must pay for security. But it is also a social negotiation with terrorism. Truly enough, it sends a strong message to terrorists, that the US will employ all of its powers to keep its citizens safe and the strike back at the terrorists, but it also tells the terrorists that they can successfully change the way of life in a targeted nation-state.

In the wake of Anders Behring Breivik’s shocking attack in Norway, there is a question as to how Norway will “respond” to the attack. When US officials and journalists use the term “respond” one gets a feeling that there is an expectation that dramatic and proactive steps will be taken. However, the initial Norwegian response does not seem to be at all following this model.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg made a public statement that Norway’s response would be, “more democracy, more openness, more humanity, but without naivety.” I am sure that there are those who would already discern naïveté in this statement, but from what is known so far, the Norwegian public seems to agree. USA Today has reported (in Can Norwegian punishment fit the crime?) that a poll taken by Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten showed that 71,000 of 97,000 respondents held that Norway should not re-instate the death penalty for the crimes of Anders Behring Breivik.

From the point of view of the individual, and individual accountability, there are some who would see this as a “soft” response to crime, but from the perspective of the possibility of social negotiation with terrorists, Norway’s position is the most hardline position possible: Norwegians will not enter into a social negotiation with terrorists. It is only from the perspective of the big picture that we can see this hardline position for what it is. There are many who will see it otherwise, but this is due to their inability to see the forest for the trees.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “On not negotiating with terrorists”

  1. Read Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism Here’s the amazon link so you can check out the reviews. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=baudrillard+%2B+terrorism&x=0&y=0

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