I’ve been writing an essay the last few days and frequently found myself delving off course. A minor part of said essay has been frequently catching my mind so I thought I’d make use of this little stage to have my two cents and get it out of me.

What I want to talk about is terrorism. It’s one of those issues I’d honestly like to hear less about but nevertheless, it finds its way to me. When I travelled to Rome last year for the first time, it astounded me. The scenery, the people, the food…outstanding. But since my last trip to continental Europe some years before something had changed. Soldiers now guard not only every monument but wherever there may be people, lots of people. They did not so much fear that someone might try to destroy a piece of amazing history, a time capsule of another culture. But that someone might attack ordinary people. In the context, I imagine it’s of little surprise. In light of events in France and Belgium, Rome seems like a viable next target. But why has it come to this, why have normal lives become the red gold that terrorists wish to see flowing down our streets.

Some of the older folk among us may recall a thing called “The Troubles”. For those who don’t, it was about three decades of guerrilla war in Northern Ireland pitting British military and police forces against Irish Republicans, most prominently the IRA. To my eyes the IRA were a terrorist group, no doubt, however, I am sure to more than a few they were freedom fighters. For all-purpose, they are one and the same. The IRA carried out a campaign of bombings both in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain, one of the most notorious of such attacks was the Manchester Bombing 1996 (pictured below).

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The most astounding fact about this bombing is that no-one was killed, the IRA had informed the police of the bomb in enough time to evacuate the area and gather a sizable media presence. Such was a common tactic. This is because the IRA had a political aim, the reunification of Ireland and such an aim would require negotiation with the very state they were bombing.  They saw terrorism as a means to and end thus it constrained them. The Troubles still killed many however this was generally targeted violence, assassinations, ambushes, etc. It was a theatre. Mass attacks would have been nothing but counteractive to their ultimate goal. So what changed, how did terrorism go from killing constrained by its ends to killing for killing’s sake?

Religion.

Religiously motivated terrorism seeks only one goal, the complete annihilation of its foe. It is not constrained by what it hopes to achieve. The minds of its perpetrators have no concern over what consequences their action may have. There is purely the act of killing. This is something that must be remembered when we consider how to deal with terrorism in the modern age. Those who speak of how peace was brought about in Northern Ireland through compromise and negotiation are not wrong. But this is not the same and it never can be. One can resolve a dispute through compromise when you have something to give to the other side. Unless we find a sizable portion of Western population favourable to the idea of beheading themselves, then I fear we have little to give to religious terrorists.

In 1976 Brian Jenkins wrote that terrorism ‘wanting a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead’, 30 years later he wrote that terrorists ‘want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead’. Times have changed and with that must our response.