. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dialogue Stops Bombs

The brutal confrontations in Northern Ireland and the bombs that struck terror into Muscovites last week have more in common than blood and tears. Both events contain important lessons about the nature of modern terrorism, the potential to isolate "local" conflicts and the durability of historical struggle.


The violent clashes surrounding the Orange Day march through a Roman Catholic neighborhood by Unionist Protestants, commemorating the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the English Catholic King James Il in 1690, have derailed the fragile Ulster peace process for some time to come. The weekend's bomb explosion in Enniskillen was in direct response to the British authorities' permission for the march to go ahead. Systematic bombing of British cities by the IRA, like the bomb attack in the center of Manchester in June and the truck bomb in London in February, will now most likely resume.


Despite the lack of concrete evidence, last week's trolleybus bombs in Moscow, like the one that was detonated on the city's metro in June, have been linked to Chechen terrorists. They have in any case served some people as grounds for reneging on the Russian pre-election offer of a cease-fire in the separatist republic.


The kind of terrorist acts that were carried out in the 1970s and the early 1980s by extremist leftovers of the 1968 student revolutions -- such as the German Red Army Fraction, the Italian Red Brigades, and the partly Marxist-inspired Basque independence movement, ETA -- all bore the hallmarks of class struggle and were thus essentially selective in their targets. Typically, terrorist action was an extreme expression of political dissent with the existing state order, which was personified in specific figures. Politicians, industrialists and bankers were thus its natural targets.


By the late 1980s, parallel with the systemic collapse of most noncapitalist states and the idea of communism, the nature and the methods of terrorism had begun to change. Political terrorism, as it had been known, was giving way to nationalist and religious extremism. Nationalist and religious extremists have used bomb terror in major cities to wage all-out war on governments and, by extension, on their people; IRA bombs in Britain's cities, Islam extremists' bombs in Paris and New York, ETA bombs in Spanish towns attest to this terrible truth.


While not a single Vietcong bomb exploded on U.S. soil during America's eight-year military involvement in Vietnam, urban bomb explosions of recent years starkly show the increased vulnerability of big cities and the impossibility of containing national or religious conflicts within their area of origin. Helped by growing international mobility and the easy availability of bomb-related hardware and know-how, terrorists have made inroads into the normal rhythm of urban life.


Unlike political terrorism, which is an expression of an ideological struggle that has largely been settled, national and religious terrorism may be here to stay. Suppressed or overshadowed by the capitalist-communist confrontation, national and religious aspirations have, with the end of the bipolar world, come to the fore.


Just as the violence in Northern Ireland is not the result of any one political decision of recent times, but rather the consequence of more than 300 years of sectarian hostilities and national struggle, the current fighting in Chechnya is but a new flare-up in the more than 200-year-long campaign by Russia to secure and strengthen its position in the Caucasus. It has been marked by decades of uninterrupted scorched-earth warfare, guerrilla resistance, massive deportations and Soviet domination, further fueled by traditional enmity between Russian Orthodoxy and local Islam.


Sadly, in the case of blind religious fundamentalism which pursues no other object than to fight the non- and misbelievers with fire and sword, there is little governments can do, other than take preventive and precautionary measures. This is the bitter lesson of the recent bomb attack against U.S. military personnel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In the absence of identifiable political actors or demands, reacting to the terror in a direct way is impossible.


The stated nationalist or religious claims that motivate extremist acts can, however, provide a basis for action and, however loathsome and unpalatable, dialogue. In most cases, the historic dimension of conflicts like the ones in Northern Ireland and Chechnya make quick-fix approaches inadequate, especially ones that rely on force.


The painful truth is that there is no single solution to the seemingly "local" struggles for Basque autonomy, Palestinian self-rule, Chechen independence or a revised status for Northern Ireland. All parties to such conflicts, and especially governments need to admit that most rights are past wrongs and that settlement involves compromise. Now that conflict can no longer be isolated, there is no alternative to all-inclusive negotiations and mediation -- behind closed doors and helped along by independent, impartial outsiders if need be.


The transformation of the PLO is a striking example. Through the patient and gradual process of negotiation and political inclusion, an initially violent, if not openly terrorist, organization was turned into a fully recognized and legitimate interlocutor.


There surely is a lesson to be learned from this. Politics must have primacy over violence. Unlike terrorists, governments are saddled with the burden of responsibility. Governments must not forget that continued dialogue -- the sine qua non for building trust -- rather than settling scores for past injustices, is required to contain the violence and stop the bombs.





Richard Burger is an independent consultant to non-governmental organizations in Russia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.