Israel and its allies have made a knee-jerk assumption that war is the only way to create safety and respond to the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas. This assumption — which upholds violence as the only path forward — is commonly accepted by extremists on both sides of the conflict, as well as most leaders and institutions across the U.S. and Europe. What’s more: It’s completely wrong. I should know; I’ve studied and taught courses about nonviolent responses to terrorism for many years.
What I’ve learned is that it takes a failure of foresight to believe that an unprecedented bombing and ground campaign in Gaza can create safety — and a failure of imagination to believe it’s the only possible method. Conversely, nonmilitary techniques have, in numerous historical cases, reduced the threat of terror.
Drawing from these cases, I compiled a list of such techniques, which I shared in a 2015 article for Waging Nonviolence titled “8 Ways to Defend Against Terror Nonviolently.” That article — published on the heels of a terrorist attack in France — is just as necessary today, which is why I’m republishing an edited version of it here. We all need to understand that there’s a wide range of options to generate safety beyond taking up arms.
One of my most popular courses at Swarthmore College focused on the challenge of how to defend against terrorism, nonviolently. Who knew that non-military techniques have, in actual historical cases, reduced the threat of terror?
I gathered for the students eight non-military techniques that have worked for some country or other. The eight comprised the “toolbox” that the students had to work with. We didn’t spend time criticizing military counter-terrorism because we were more interested in alternatives.
Each student chose a country somewhere in the world that is presently threatened by terrorism and, taking the role of a consultant to that country, devised from our nonviolent toolbox a strategy for defense.
Some students who assumed that military defense is crucial opened to a bigger perspective. They realized that, given the success some countries have had using just two or three of the tools, there is significant untapped potential: What if countries used all of the tools together, with the resulting synergies? For me the question arose: Why couldn’t populations rely completely on the nonviolent toolbox for their defense against terror?
Here are the eight techniques:
1. Ally-building and the infrastructure of economic development
Poverty and terrorism are indirectly linked. Economic development can reduce recruits and gain allies, especially if development is done in a democratic way. The terrorism by Northern Ireland’s Irish Republican Army, for example, was strongly reduced by grassroots, job-creating, economic development.
2. Reducing cultural marginalization
As France, Britain and other countries have learned, marginalizing a group within your population is not safe or sensible; terrorists grow under those conditions. This is also true on a global level. Much marginalizing is unintentional, but it can be reduced. “Freedom of the press,” for example, transforms into “provocation” when it further marginalizes a population that is already one-down, as are Muslims in France. When Anglophone Canada reduced its marginalization, it reduced the threat of terrorism from Quebec.
3. Nonviolent protest/campaigns among the defenders, plus unarmed civilian peacekeeping
Terrorism happens in a larger context and is therefore influenced by that context. Some terror campaigns have lapsed because they lost popular support. That’s because terror’s strategic use is often to gain attention, provoke a violent response and win more support in the broader population.
The rise and fall of support for terrorism is in turn influenced by social movements using people power, or nonviolent struggle. The U.S. civil rights movement brilliantly handled the Ku Klux Klan’s threat to activists, most dangerous when there was no effective law enforcement to help. The nonviolent tactics reduced the KKK’s appeal among white segregationists. Since the 1980s, pacifists and others have established an additional, promising tool: intentional and planned unarmed civilian peacekeeping. (Check out Peace Brigades International, for one example.)
4. Pro-conflict education and training
Ironically, terror often happens when a population tries to suppress conflicts instead of supporting their expression. A technique for reducing terror, therefore, is to spread a pro-conflict attitude and the nonviolent skills that support people waging conflict to give full voice to their grievances.
5. Post-terror recovery programs
Not all terror can be prevented, any more than all crime can be prevented. Keep in mind that terrorists often have the goal of increasing polarization. Recovery programs can help prevent that polarization, the cycle of hawks on one side “arming” the hawks on the other side.
Recovery programs build resilience, so people don’t go rigid with fear and create self-fulfilling prophecies. The leap forward in trauma counseling is relevant for this technique along with innovative rituals such as those the Norwegians used after the 2011 terrorist massacre there.
6. Police as peace officers: the infrastructure of norms and laws
Police work can become far more effective through the reduction of the social distance between police and the neighborhoods they serve. In some countries this requires re-conceptualization of the police from defenders of the property of the dominant group to genuine peace officers; witness the unarmed Icelandic police. Countries like the United States need to join the growing global infrastructure of human rights law reflected in the Land Mines Treaty and International Criminal Court, and accept accountability for their own officials who are probable war criminals.
7. Policy changes and the concept of reckless behavior
Governments sometimes make choices that invite — almost beg for — a terrorist response. Political scientist and sometime U.S. Air Force consultant Robert A. Pape showed in 2005 that the United States has repeatedly done this, often by putting troops on someone else’s land. In his recent book “Cutting the Fuse,” he and James K. Feldman give concrete examples of governments reducing the terror threat by ending such reckless behavior. To protect themselves from terror, citizens in all countries need to gain control of their own governments and force them to behave.
Governments often say “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” but when they say that they are often lying. Governments have often reduced or eliminated terrorism through negotiation, and negotiation skills continue to grow in sophistication.
Realistic application of non-military defense against terror
At the request of a group of U.S. experts on counter-terrorism, I described our Swarthmore work and especially the eight techniques. The experts recognized that each of these tools have indeed been used in real-life situations in one place or another, with some degree of success. They also saw no problem, in principle, in devising a comprehensive strategy that would create synergies among the tools.
The problem they saw was persuading a government to take such a bold, innovative leap.
As an American, I can see the direct contradiction between, on the one hand, my government’s huge effort to convince taxpayers that we desperately need our swollen military and, on the other, a new policy that mobilizes a different kind of power for genuine, human security. I understand that for my country and for some others as well, a living revolution might need to come first.
What I like about having an alternative, non-military defense in our back pocket, though, is that it speaks to the real need of my fellow citizens for security in a dangerous world. Psychologist Abraham Maslow long ago pointed out the fundamental human need for security. Analyzing and criticizing militarism, however brilliantly, doesn’t actually enhance anyone’s security. Imagining an alternative, as my students did, may give people the psychological space they need to put energy into something more life-giving.
Our role at the grassroots
The good news is that a number of these eight techniques can be applied by civil society, without waiting for governmental leadership that may never come. Two are no-brainers: Spread the skills and strategy of nonviolent protest, and teach a pro-conflict attitude.
The Black Lives Matter movement found many white people joining in on Black-initiated turf — that’s a concrete example of reducing marginalization, a concept that generates dozens of creative moves by whoever happens to be mainstream (Christian, middle class, etc.). We can also initiate recovery programs after terror has erupted in our midst, as it did during the Boston Marathon.
Activists are used to launching campaigns to force the government to give up some of its reckless policies, but may forget to frame activism that way. A scared public needs to know that activists hear the fear, and are on the side of safety.
By my count, these five of the eight tools can be used by people taking bottom-up initiatives to reduce the threat of terror. They might be incorporated by those who want to bring a holistic and positive approach to the fear that otherwise depresses and paralyzes. As usual, what helps others lightens the load for each one of us who takes that step.
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