[By Thomas Walkom, The Toronto Star, Sept. 16, 2001]

The almost universal Western reaction to the terror attack on the United States has been anger, revulsion and a desire to make sure it never happens again.

U.S. President George W. Bush has declared "war on terrorism." The other 18 NATO countries, including Canada, have given at least formal blessing to this enterprise.

In Washington, government officials and politicians are emphasizing their country's steely resolve, their determination not to buckle under and their certainty that those who planned these attacks will face a stern and unforgiving retribution.

But history demonstrates two dirty little secrets about terrorism, neither of which governments are anxious to admit. The first is that terrorism is almost impossible to prevent unless its root causes are seriously and systematically addressed.

The second is that, quite often, terrorists get what they want. "We can do things that will help lessen the possibility of a terrorist attacks, but eliminate it we can't," says historian Hal Klepak, a professor of war studies at Kingston's Royal Military College. "To talk of a war against terrorism is not helpful."

The terrorists who hijacked four airliners "apparently did it with X-acto knives," says Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the University of Toronto's Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict. "What are we going to do, strip-search everyone boarding an airplane to see if they're carrying X-acto knives?"

"There are an infinite number of terrorist targets," adds Jim Hanson, associate executive director of the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies and a retired brigadier general. "You guard one target and these guys will pick another one. In a free, democratic society, there's not much you can do about it."

We tend to think of terrorism as a new phenomenon. It is not. Terror is an old strategy in warfare from the medieval European practice of placing the heads of captured enemies on pikes, to the savage raids against women and children that characterized the French-English frontier wars of 18th-century Canada.

Terror is cheap. It's easier to kill civilians than soldiers. And, if by doing so, the enemy is sufficiently frightened, he may end up doing what the perpetrator of terror wishes.

Throughout much of history, terror was the tool of the state. In revolutionary France, the instrument of terror was the guillotine; in revolutionary Russia, it was the firing squad. But in modern times, as Klepak points out, terror became the instrument of the weak. From the Serbian and Macedonian terrorists, whose campaigns against Austro-Hungary and Turkey helped plunge Europe into World War I, to the Jewish extremists who battled the British in pre-1948 Palestine, terrorists have used fear to counteract the far stronger military might of their adversaries.

And quite often, the terrorists appear to have succeeded. France quit Algeria in 1962 after waging a vicious and ultimately unwinnable war against the terrorist National Liberation Front.

In 1946, Jewish terrorists agitating for their own state in British-occupied Palestine blew up Jerusalem's King David Hotel, killing 91. Two years later, an independent Israel was established. "There werea lot of innocent British women and children killed there," says Hanson."But in the end, it worked; the British left."

Some, like University of Toronto international relations professor Wesley Wark, vehemently deny that terror ever succeeds. Wark says Jewish terror attacks, for instance, had nothing to do with Britain quitting Palestine and the subsequent establishment of Israel. "Anyone who says that doesn't know anything about the Middle East," he snaps. "I do not believe any terrorist campaign has ever achieved its political goals."

Others disagree. "Israel was born in terror," says Klepak. "It knows what terror is; it was active in creating it. I don't mean this as an insult. It is simply what happened."

What does seem indisputable, however, is that definitions of what constitutes terror and terrorism change with the times.

In British-occupied Palestine, Menachim Begin, then a leader of the underground Irgun organization which blew up the King David Hotel, was treated as a terrorist. A few decades later, Begin was prime minister of Israel and accorded the greatest respect by his former enemies.

Ditto for another Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. In the 1940s, he also was a terrorist, a leader of the Stern Gang that took responsibility for selective assassinations of British and U.N. officials.

So, too, Yassar Arafat. Israel's government may not like the Palestinian leader these days, but it does deal with him and with a Palestinian Liberation Organization it once denounced as a gang of terrorists.

Certainly, changing definitions of terror are not confined to the Middle East.

In the 1950s, Jomo Kenyatta spent time in jail for his role as a leader of the terrorist Mau Mau movement fighting the British occupation of Kenya. A few years later, Britain left Kenya and Kenyatta became the new country's first prime minister.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist until 1990, when the white-supremacist government realized it had no choice but to deal with him. Now, at home and abroad, Mandela is treated as the embodiment of free South Africa.

The list goes on. The U.S. State Department branded the Kosovo Liberation Army as a terrorist organization until 1999. That's when it enlisted the ethnic Albanian nationalist organization's help in NATO's brief war against Yugoslavia.

Ironically, Osama bin Laden who has been marked as the main suspect in the attack on the U.S. was, just a few years ago, feted as a freedom fighter by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia for his role in driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.

In those days, only the Soviets referred to the Afghan resistance as terrorists -- including bin Laden and his friends in the Taliban, who now rule most of the country. In those days, the West treated such claims as Soviet propaganda. So, other than the fact that times change, what is the lesson from all of this?

To Homer-Dixon, it is that a military response alone is not sufficient. "You can't do anything with such people (terrorists) except isolate them," he says. "But the circumstances which give rise to their appeal can be addressed. Like the refugee camps outside Afghanistan: They produce the environment in which these things breed."

Klepak agrees. Like Homer-Dixon, he has nothing against the U.S. hunting down and killing those responsible for the latest terror attacks as long it doesn't overreact. And he agrees that North American governments should do what they can to make air travel more secure.

But once that's done, Klepak says, the grievances that inspire such hatred of the U.S. and the West have to be addressed. "Terrorism is bred when you have people in despair, people with nothing to lose, people with no other way to fight back .... "Sure, plenty may be bonkers. But plenty are not. Plenty are brutalized by living in these (refugee) camps and watching their mothers die in a bombing raid and by watching hopelessness. What they feel is abject injustice."

Homer-Dixon feels the international economic system must be reformed toremove what he calls "the fundamentally inequitable structural impediments to development. "We are implicated in this," he says. "What's the first thing we do with a financial crisis? We rush in to ensure that the banks and the bondholders are all right. Once we've dealt with that, we don't care."

He points out that in the 1998 Asian economic crisis, the Western world bailed out the banks and then left countries like Indonesia in the lurch. "Or look at Mexico. We solved the Mexican financial crisis (of 1995). But for the average Mexican, there's been no improvement; all of the economic growth has gone to the wealthy. For most people, things are worse."

To Klepak, the answer could be found in a global conference in which the big nations use their muscle to ensure that the breeding grounds ofterrorism are cleaned up. Such a conference, he says, might force Israel, the Palestinians and other Middle East nations to cut a deal.

"It may be necessary to discipline Israel and the Arab nations," he says. "It may be necessary to say to Israel, 'You couldn't hold all of that territory (the occupied territories) in 60 B.C. and you can't hold it all now'."

While the attacks on Washington and New York were devastating, they were also relatively primitive, involving the old terrorist standbys of hijacking, suicide missions and explosive force. The next one, Klepak warns, could involve poisons, or nerve gas such as that used in the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. Or it could involve deadly biological agents.

"We've got to be serious about this. We can't take too many more attacks like [those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon]. We certainly can't take attacks involving chemical or biological warare. "It may sound awful to say this, but maybe we should treat what happened as a wake-up call. We must get it right .... We must cut off the desperation at the root. If we don't, we are ferociously vulnerable."

(slightly abridged and edited for the CIC Friday Bulletin)