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7 Years Later: Could Civilians Be Key to Winning the War on Terror?

Except for Iraq, the world has not seen a sustained increase in deaths from terrorism; after the horrific 2001 spike, terror fatalities returned to levels of the late 90s. In fact, by mid-2007, outside Afghanistan, Iraq, and other “insurgency theaters,” says Virginia-based think-tank The Intelcenter, fatalities from Islamist attacks around the world have declined by more than 90 percent from their 2004 high point.

So reports Human Security Brief 2007 from the Human Security Report Project of the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.


Didn’t Senator McCain just remind us that “we live in a very dangerous world”? Yes, and he’s of course not alone. From the U.S. National Intelligence Estimates to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, we’re told that the incidence and threat of terrorism are increasing.

Those who insist terrorism is getting worse count politically motivated killings of civilians by non-state groups in Iraq — in 2006 home to 79 percent of global terror fatalities — and distort the wider picture. Plus, their counting is just plain inconsistent, note authors of theBrief: The same analysts who include Iraqis killed by non-state armed groups among terror victims exclude similarly caused deaths in Africa’s civil wars in their terror counts.

Most encouraging and underreported, the Human Security Brief describes a broad “popular backlash” against violent Islamist movements in the Muslim world. “Large and growing majorities of Muslims” also “reject Islamists’ harsh and repressive ideology.”

A July 2007 Pew poll in four largely Muslim countries found the number of those justifying attacks on civilians was down by half compared to five years earlier. A late 2007 ABC News/BBC poll found just one percent of Afghans expressing “strong support” for the presence of Taliban and jihadi fighters.

And such sentiments are shared by just about anyone we can think of, Muslim or not. From our friends and loved ones to John S. McCain — we’ve all been victims of terrorism, directly or indirectly. Thirteen years after Oklahoma and seven years after 9-11, we know we may never be fully healed. But we might do well to see what can be learned from the experience of those who have continued to live with terrorism on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.

More and more people around the world are disavowing violence against civilians, and support for terrorism is drying up. People are fed up, and that’s good news — because being fed up works. When regular people reject the mentality of violence, the reality of violence withers and weakens.

So how can we keep that trend going?

Not by fear-mongering that leads to a shoot-now/think-later stance and makes civilian casualties inevitable. Case in point? A Human Rights Watch report this week says that “civilian deaths from U.S. and NATO airstrikes — almost all from unplanned strikes — jumped nearly threefold between 2006 and 2007. And civilian deaths from airstrikes “act as a recruiting tool for the Taliban.”

Killing civilians? That sounds like a sure way to reverse a hopeful trend.

If John McCain, Barack Obama, or any presidential candidate wants to keep America secure in the 21st century, they’ll have to reject the disproved notion that military violence can be the primary answer to terrorism. Not only must we improve intelligence and develop smarter defenses, the U.S. will have to start trusting the good sense of people who increasingly reject violence, and prove that trust by working much harder to protect them from harm.

It turns out that changing attitudes about war and violence isn’t some kind of pie-in-the-sky idea designed to make us feel better (even though we probably would). It’s happening. And it is good foreign policy.

Does your presidential ticket know that?

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