One of the original thinkers of sociology, Max Weber, defined the modern state as “a human community which holds the claim for legitimate use of force within a given territory.” To humanity’s great chagrin, most terrorists have probably never read Weber, and thus go about their plots to influence politics with violence, mostly at the expense of civilians. Since Ronald Reagan’s infamous pledge to never negotiate with terrorists, the public has debated whether negotiations with terrorist groups are warranted or even advisable. In fact, in 2015, former President Obama announced a policy overhaul that would publicly state that the American government could start communicating and negotiate with hostage takers.
Below, we’ll discuss three reasons for negotiating with terrorists, and three reasons for refusing to negotiate with them.
We shouldn’t negotiate with terrorists.
Negotiating with terrorists isn’t necessary.
The shock and awe tactics employed by terrorists are intended to scare the public into believing that its powers are larger than they are and that its aims are an urgent matter. However (and with the utmost respect for the suffering of terror victims and their families), statistics reveal that losses of human life due to terror attacks are low in number. Since 1975, just over 3,000 Americans have been killed in the US by foreign-born terror – that’s a 1 in 45,808 chance of dying from terrorism. For comparison, the odds of dying from heart disease or cancer are much higher: 1 in 7. In general, terrorist have no armies, minimal funding, and terrorist activities are generally unable to make destabilizing impact on target countries. Victim countries maintain their militaries, territory, and political systems. Negotiation is not merited when the state holds all the cards.
Terrorists do not represent the people they claim to represent.
ETA, the militant Basque separatist movement, was formed with the goal of winning independence from Spain. The only problem was that violent resistance in general and the ETA in particular was never popular among Basques. Similarly, groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS claim to speak for all Islam, when polling from Muslim majority countries reveals that these groups couldn’t be less popular.
Negotiating with such groups assigns them legitimacy they do not have. It therefore does a disservice to the populations that these organizations pretend to represent by associating them with causes they, in fact, do not believe in.
Negotiating with terrorist undermines rule of law.
Terrorists are criminals, period. The tactics utilized by terrorist organizations and organized crime families, particularly drug cartels, are basically interchangeable. Murder, extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking, rape, and the innumerable other acts committed by terrorists are already codified by law as criminal acts. Touting some purported grievance as the reason for these crimes in no way excuses them. Societies ruled by law expect their governments to pursue justice. Just as we would not negotiate with John Gotti or El Chapo over the nature of their crimes, we should not negotiate with terrorists in response to theirs.
We should negotiate with terrorists.
Negotiating with terrorists affirms the values of human life and community.
Consider Israel’s history of lopsided prisoner swaps with terrorist groups. Israel once traded 4,700 detainees to the Palestinian Liberation Organization for six Israeli soldiers. That’s a 783:1 ratio. The stakes were even higher in the 2011 prisoner exchange with Hamas, wherein 1,027 convicted terrorists were released in exchange for just one captive soldier (that’s a 1,027:1 ratio for those keeping count). Is there anything more endearing to a country than the public proclamation that a life of one of its citizens is worth 1,000? Such negotiations send a clear message to the communities who benefit from them: You are part of this community, and your life has value.
Negotiating with terrorists can sometimes be a necessary evil.
Let’s talk about the world’s most tenacious narco-terrorist, Columbia’s cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar. When extradition of narcotraffickers to the US became a Columbian imperative, Escobar sought to influence the policy with the tools at his disposal – namely, political assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings (lovely guy). Average citizens should not be forced to bear the consequences of terrorists’ disagreement with government. So, Columbia’s decision to reverse its extradition law and even to allow Escobar to serve out his prison sentence in a luxury prison of his own design, was welcomed warmly by the public and was a necessary measure in ensuring public security.
Similarly, negotiations with terrorist organizations can serve as a starting point for a broader peace agreement, as secret and public negotiations between the government of the UK and the Irish Republican Army and the latter’s subsequent disarmament and participation in politics demonstrates.
Negotiating with terrorists is preferable to the alternatives.
Say what you will about terrorists, they are persistent. FARC guerillas made Columbia’s jungles untraversable for three decades. Al Qaeda has been in business since (gulp) 1988, and may be stronger than ever today, not to mention ISIS. The threat to public security is real, present, and potentially long term. Governments must therefore weigh the cost of non-negotiation, which can range from indiscriminate bombings, the kidnapping and torture of innocents, to biological warfare against potential gains of peace to be won through negotiation. Non-negotiation can also mean confrontation through violence. The only problem is that this kind of warfare is asymmetrical and generally more costly for governments than it is for terrorist groups. For instance, in 2011, it was estimated that America’s “War on Terror” had cost $1 trillion, a number that has risen to $5.6 trillion in 2018. Thus, negotiations with terrorists may actually benefit national economic and security interests.
While the reasons for refusing to negotiate with terrorists are plain, this inflexible stance is not always feasible or necessarily desirable. But neither can a policy of negotiation always create positive results. With globalization and social media affording terrorists broader possibilities of influence, do you think governments should negotiate with them or refrain from doing so?