The unjust logic of people who defend terrorism

A few years ago, I heard Imran Khan speak at the HT Leadership Summit. He was part of a panel that was discussing Kashmir and when it was time for questions, the cricketer-turned-politician turned his attention to the subject of terrorism.

In response to queries from the audience about Pakistan-backed terrorism in the Kashmir Valley, Khan fell back on the oldest of clichés. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” he said solemnly.

Later, he went on to make the point that if a man was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice (i.e. give up his life) then this proved that the poor wretch had been made so miserable by the forces of oppression that he was willing to part with the one thing he had left.

At the time Imran spoke, Pakistan had not yet turned fully into the terror-ridden, failed society that it is today.

So, the great man was able to squat on the moral high ground and lecture us Indians about how the violence in Kashmir was merely a response to our oppression and our unwillingness to give the freedom fighters the independence they deserved.

I thought back to Imran and his justification (or explanation, at any rate) of terrorism when I saw the saga of the Boston bombings unfold on our TV screens.

Judging by what we know, the two Chechen brothers who were involved in that incident suffered no oppression. They lived largely contented lives in the United States and friends described the younger brother as successful and well adjusted.

It is true that the Chechens have a grouse against Russia–as they have demonstrated by resorting to innumerable acts of terror within Russia — but the United States is hardly their oppressor.

In fact, the Russian government has complained that the US has often seemed to be on the side of the Chechens. Nor could it be that the terror suspects felt alienated or oppressed because of religion.

Americans have a slightly racist view of Islam: they associate it with brown or black people. The Chechen brothers were white and their religion never seems to have become an issue.

Certainly, there is no evidence that they were discriminated against because they were Muslims. And yet, if investigators are to be believed, these men tried to kill innocent women and children at the Boston marathon.

What led them to commit this act of terror? If they were indeed, in Imran Khan’s words, freedom fighters, then whose freedom were they fighting for?

And given that they led secure, middle-class lives in America, they were hardly the deprived wretches he described who had nothing to offer except for their lives.

At another HT Summit, a few years after Imran had offered his valuable insights into terrorism, Tony Blair spoke about the London Tube bombings.

Blair expressed the sentiment that many of us also shared. He could just about understand, he said, why a Palestinian thrown out of his home might take to violence. But what of the London bombers?

These were children of immigrant families who had enjoyed all the benefits offered to them by the British state, had suffered no oppression whatsoever, and still felt the urge to go and kill hapless civilians. It made no sense.

As should be obvious, Blair was right even if he was mystified by the causes of terrorism. And though Imran was certain in his characterization of terror, he was clearly wrong.

The truth is that there is no easy explanation for terrorism. Yes, it might sometimes be the last resort of a desperate man. But more often than not, it is an unnatural impulse that is motivated more by abnormal psychology than by any ideology.

At some level, we can just about understand why a desperate man would attack his oppressor. (As Bhagat Singh attacked British colonial officials.)

But that is not terrorism. The true definition of terrorism is when non-combatants and people with no connection to any oppression are attacked.

A man who shot Hitler would not be a terrorist. But a man who blows up a train carrying hundreds of innocent civilians is clearly a terrorist.

So, what makes the terrorist do it? I suspect that the answers continue to lie in the realm of the brain. At some level, a terrorist is like a psychopath, a serial killer who justifies his lust for blood by quoting ideology or imagined oppression.

Often, in our part of the world, terrorists share the mentality of hit men. Compare the guys accused of shooting Deepak Bharadwaj with Ajmal Kasab. In both cases, the murderers had no enmity with their victims.

They suffered no oppression and had alternative ways of making a living. They chose murder only because they had no qualms about taking lives and thought that they could earn easy money.

According to the account provided by Kasab’s father, his son left home after fighting with the family because they would not give him money for fancy new clothes.

He fell in with a terror group not because of any religious commitment or because of any empathy with oppressed Muslims elsewhere in the world.

He enjoyed the glamour and the excitement of belonging to this group and had no hesitation in causing suffering to others.

The trouble with the Imran Khan-type of defense of terrorists is that it tries to turn them into heroes and sympathetic figures while totally misunderstanding their motives or their psychology.

It is a trap that all of Pakistan fell into before their country became the sort of place where a car bomb a day does not seem like an unusual occurrence.

The way to treat terrorists is the way we treat serial killers, mass murderers and other psychopaths.

To resent suffering is normal. To protest against the oppressor is also normal. But to kill innocent civilians is far from normal. It is the mark of a sick mind, of the spirit that drove the Boston Strangler, Jack the Ripper and Raman Raghav.

And yet, the world is full of people who share Imran’s views and repeat his justifications. Even Imran himself has not said anything about shutting down the camps that train terrorists who kill innocent people in Kashmir and other parts of India.

And I suspect he makes a distinction between violence in Pakistan which he regards as terrorism and violence in Kashmir which he probably still sees as a fight for freedom.

Any civilized society must reject the specious justifications and the empty rhetoric offered by the likes of Imran Khan. We must never compromise with terror.

And when it comes to awarding punishment to terrorists, we should punish them for their acts and pay no attention to the ideological humbug they offer as justification.

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