In the 21st century, globalization has cast a web across the planet, making distance no longer an issue in communication. Terrorism thrives on this web, and we haven’t found a way to stop it.
It used to be that people felt safe in cities. Early this year I was in London, and that was the case there. Of every American city I had been to, there was not one that felt as safe and welcoming as London. People there walk freely along the streets, wearing whatever they want and behaving however they want. I was more concerned with clever hands nabbing the wallet in my pocket than a car careening into a crowd, or an explosion.
Then two weeks later, I saw the news: 50 people injured, four dead on Westminster Bridge. An angry Islamic extremist ran them over with a car. In a place I had spent time in, people died.
Many people are now connected in some way to terrorism. Whether it was a family visit to Paris in 2015 before the Bataclan massacre, or a friend who was in Boston circa 2013, the global web brings all humans into terrorism’s sphere of influence. As for us Americans, 9/11 hangs heavy over the last 16 years of our lives.
With every religious fanatic or delusional extremist, the question returns: How do we stop it?
First and foremost, terrorism is an international issue. That is the stage on which we need to find an answer. Convention topics such as 1997’s suppression of terrorist bombings, 1999’s suppression of terrorist financing, and 2005’s suppression of nuclear terrorism make initial progress toward a coherent strategy to fight global terrorism. But these — along with the seemingly limitless number of other non-binding resolutions against terrorism — lack force and structure.
We need a comprehensive convention on international terrorism, with mechanisms to punish offenders and structure. It’s not an unattainable goal, just a difficult one. Since 1996, the UN has tried over and over to establish a treaty criminalizing all forms of terrorism and cutting off terrorist financiers. Why 20 years and still no profit? No consensus has been reached on the definition of terrorism. Find this puzzle piece and the picture is complete.
The products of such a treaty are still up in the air.
In a perfect world, where all members can find common ground, the treaty would establish a system for punishing violations — specifically the financing of terrorist activities. This would likely take the form of an international court where charges could be levied with substantial evidence. The problem becomes, again, defining who is a financier of terrorism. Should we say that only those who write the check should be punished? Or should we also look at situations like Saudi Arabia’s building of religious madrassas (Islamic schools) in Pakistan and say, as many do, that this investment aids religious extremism? This exact type of question shuts down progress on the issue.
The other necessary outcome of such a treaty is the structuring of global terrorism prevention. Currently anti-terrorism legislation is divided into four sectors: aviation, maritime, nuclear and conventional explosives. Without eliminating these already well-discussed sectors, an overarching body would be able to coordinate legal practices, oversee implementation of legislation and establish task forces and committees to address specific issues.
Terrorism is dynamic. In 2001, hijackers flew airplanes into buildings, but now the means are simpler. Cars, household chemicals, anything and everything is weaponized. The only way to fight a creative enemy is to be ruthlessly comprehensive in our strategy. Right now, that’s a skill we simply don’t have and one we can’t waste any more time debating.