Broadening Horizons on Counterterrorism

August 25, 2011 Topic: UNHuman RightsTerrorismTorture Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Broadening Horizons on Counterterrorism

I was in New York today speaking to a group of United Nations officers about counterterrorism. Perhaps twenty nationalities were represented in the room. I especially welcome non-U.S. perspectives on this subject, and wish more Americans could be exposed to them, for several reasons. Terrorism, and more specifically the variety of it that has been of most concern to the United States in recent years, is a transnational phenomenon. For some other countries terrorism has been a major concern longer than it has been so for the United States; they have hard-earned experience from which the United States could learn useful lessons. Foreigners can better see how the rest of the world in general perceives U.S. actions, including actions taken in the name of counterterrorism. Listening to their perspectives is an opportunity to more fully understand what among U.S.counterterrorist efforts is applauded and what is resented, what is likely to elicit cooperation and what is not, and what seems to be working overseas and what is counterproductive.


Over the past decade the American public's thinking about terrorism and the measures required to confront it has been highly U.S.-centric and largely unaffected by such foreign perspectives. This is partly a matter of superpower hubris that affects American thinking about many other issues as well. But mostly it is because American attitudes today about terrorism are shaped overwhelmingly by a single event—the 9/11 attack—and because that attack was directed against the United States. Ever since 9/11, there has been a feeling among Americans that the United States owns counterterrorism. This fostered the unhelpful “you're either for us or for the terrorists” approach toward counterterrorism. That approach has since softened considerably, especially with the change in administrations, but the public sense that helped to give rise to it persists.

One of the chief respects in which the perspective of the U.N. officers tends to diverge from typical American views is a greater sensitivity to how other values, especially ones that could be placed under the label of human rights, may be compromised by counterterrorist actions. (The issue of torture was a focus of discussion.) A second difference is a greater awareness of not only the importance of international cooperation to counterterrorism but also of how cooperation is a two-way proposition and not all give by one side and take by the other. A third is a greater awareness of the connection between unresolved political or economic grievances and the incidence of terrorism.

Amid all the reflection and stock-taking occasioned by the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it would be good to reflect on how that highly traumatic event narrowed thinking about terrorism in some ways that may not be very constructive in heading off still more terrorism.