The Virtues of Restraint159 views
Why the Use of Force Is Rarely a Sufficient Response to Terrorism – By Shivshankar Menon
After Hamas’s horrific terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, it seemed inevitable that Israel would retaliate in devastating fashion. The first, natural reaction to such an attack is revulsion, accompanied by a desire for revenge and exemplary punishment. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acted on that desire, vowing to “destroy” Hamas, bombarding the Gaza Strip, and launching a ground invasion of the territory—even though it remains unclear how, if at all, Israel can eliminate Hamas militarily or ideologically.
But choosing to meet violence with violence is a choice. In fact, not all victims of terrorism choose retaliation. On November 26, 2008, ten Pakistani terrorists stealthily landed by sea in Mumbai. The carnage they unleashed over the next two days in attacks on hotels, cafes, a major train station, and a community center killed at least 174 people and injured over 300. Indian authorities swiftly realized that the terrorists came from Pakistan and enjoyed the backing of the country’s security establishment. I served as foreign secretary in the Indian government at the time, and my first reaction was to press for strong retaliatory action against our neighbor for such a brazen attack.
But after deliberations in which it weighed the likely outcomes and broader effects of various courses of action, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government ultimately opted not to undertake an overt military strike on terrorist camps in Pakistan. Instead, New Delhi responded to the terrorist atrocity in Mumbai through diplomatic and covert channels. In public, the country chose restraint, not revenge. That decision brought India international support, prevented a potentially catastrophic war, minimized civilian casualties, and arguably prevented more terrorism. At least so far, India has not experienced another Pakistani-backed attack with mass casualties on Indian soil.
India and Israel are, of course, two very different countries. And Pakistan and Gaza are not equivalent. Different contexts shape a state’s response to a terrorist attack. In different circumstances in 2016 and 2019, when faced with cross-border terrorist incidents, India chose to retaliate militarily against clearly defined targets in Pakistan. But the Indian experience is a powerful reminder of the limitations of dealing with terrorism as a purely military problem requiring a military response. As Israel levels parts of Gaza, sowing the seeds for future hatred, it is instructive to consider the benefits of not replying to terrorist violence with greater violence.
THE ENRAGED SAMURAI
The mythographer Joseph Campbell retold a Japanese folktale that follows the quest of a samurai intent on avenging his slain master. After hunting down his master’s killer, the samurai was preparing to decapitate him when the assassin spat in his face. The samurai immediately sheathed his sword and walked away. His master had taught him never to act out of blind anger; retribution should be exacted from an objective, righteous distance. Campbell’s tale illuminates one possible response to terror: restraint.
After the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, India reasoned that a military strike was unlikely to solve the problem of cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan; it would divert international sympathy from the Indian terror victims, suggesting that the affair was a quarrel between India and Pakistan in which both states were made equivalent. And it would give the terrorists and their sponsors precisely what they had hoped the attack would yield: an angry, divided India and possibly even a war.
Restraint appeared to be the least bad of India’s available choices. There were costs: many of the attack’s high-level sponsors in the Pakistan army and in the leadership of the anti-Indian militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the violence, escaped retribution. To be sure, India is not a pacifist power, and in other cases it has responded to terrorist violence with force. When terrorists sponsored by Pakistan attacked an Indian army camp at Uri in 2016 and a security convoy in 2019 at Lethpora, India chose to retaliate across the line militarily, hitting the terrorists’ launching pads and bases. Neither retaliatory action had a huge effect on suppressing cross-border terrorism or eliminating its instigators and leaders.
After the terrorist atrocity in Mumbai, India chose restraint—not revenge.
The goal of terrorist violence is often to throw a more powerful state off kilter and incite bloodshed. History offers cautionary examples of terrorists’ successfully baiting powerful countries into strategic blunders. The Austro-Hungarian reaction to the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to World War I and the end of the Habsburg empire. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States chose to wage an unwinnable global war on terror, invading and getting bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq; one could argue that both countries and the wider region ended up in worse shape than they were to begin with. The war on terror birthed even more lethal terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, and the high civilian death toll and the abuses committed by the U.S. military damaged the United States’ reputation.
How a government decides to respond to terrorism is often complicated by domestic political factors and the public’s desire for revenge. Leaders who pride themselves on their strength or their nationalist credentials tend to pick up the hammer. But two wrongs do not make a right, and history does not favor those who succumb to emotion and rely on military means to counter the threat of terror. Israel’s actions against civilians in Gaza and the ongoing violence in the West Bank have already cost it sympathy around the world. A “hard,” purely military response is less likely to achieve Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas than a combination of military, covert, and political measures designed to fit this specific case. Empirically speaking, most massive military responses to terrorist attacks have led to long wars, unintended consequences, and a net increase in the threat of terror. The Sri Lankan government’s elimination of the secessionist Tamil Tigers as a military force in 2009 is often cited as an example of the successful use of force against a terrorist group. But this apparent victory displaced hundreds of thousands of people, failed to resolve ethnic tensions, and distorted the country’s democratic processes—problems that persist to this day.
A military overreaction generates the oxygen of publicity that terrorists seek. It helps to promote a terrorist group’s claim to represent a disadvantaged population. Indeed, one of Hamas’s motives in carrying out the October 7 attacks may well have been to create a situation in which Palestinians, most of whom did not previously support Hamas, are driven into its arms by Israel’s punitive actions.
THE INSUFFICIENCY OF FORCE
Terrorism is political in motive and goal, and it must be dealt with as such. A strictly violent response falls in line with Israel’s response to terror over decades: a strategy it calls “mowing the grass,” a euphemism for periodic punitive campaigns that suppress, but do not eradicate, terrorist activity. The Israeli scholar and military strategist Eitan Shamir, one of the authors of that phrase, has now declared this tactic insufficient. Israeli deterrence has failed, he argues, and the country can only survive if it uproots Hamas from Gaza. How this can be achieved without horrendous casualties and suffering for the civilians of Gaza is not clear. Ignoring the rights of the Palestinians and their desire for statehood is precisely what produced the region’s present sorry state. Israeli bombings, missile attacks, and tank fire are most likely to push Gazans toward Hamas and other militant groups.
Hamas’s attack did not pose a political challenge to Israel alone. The West, now, can legitimately be accused of double standards and hypocrisy in its attitude toward foreign occupation and attacks on civilians in Ukraine and Palestine. For many in the global South and some in the North, the refusal of Western powers to press for a cease-fire or to address Israel’s attacks on civilians makes a mockery of the West’s avowed commitment to the laws of war and humanitarian considerations.
Israel’s own experience proves that repression alone does not destroy a terrorist threat.
Only by dealing with terrorism politically—isolating terrorists from the population they purport to represent and offering a better alternative—can a way forward be found that actually eliminates Hamas in its current rejectionist and nihilist form. Israel’s own experience proves that repression alone does not destroy a terrorist threat. The controlled application of force is useful, even necessary, to give politics room to work. If peace is the end goal, restraint opens the space for communication and negotiation. A purely military response to terror weakens those for whom peace is the real goal.
The calculus is, of course, further complicated when the terrorist is sponsored by a state or states. In such cases, the already limited utility of massive force against nonstate actors is compounded by the impunity that state protection gives them. A government must craft an effective response, both military and political, to the state sponsors of terror. India has considerable experience in dealing with state-sponsored terrorism. And it has, by and large, contained the problem through a combination of military, political, social, and other means internal and external to India.
None of this, of course, guarantees any country complete freedom from terrorist attacks. Experience suggests that there is no perfect formulaic response to terrorism, only less painful and more productive responses. Many Israelis and Palestinians are equally convinced that their victimhood justifies extreme and inhumane measures, and the rest of the world feels compelled to choose sides. The voices of those seeking peaceful outcomes by political means seem to be drowned out by those calling for revenge, punishment, and the use of indiscriminate force. But if there is a lesson to be drawn, it is that governments need to understand the limitations of repression and force. Choosing it alone can only lead to further tragedy.