Radically different assessments of the nature of terrorist violence are at the heart of the controversy over the United States's air attacks on Libya last week. Terrorist violence is less well understood than traditional forms of conflict. Characterized by primarily symbolic acts, it is usually instigated by weak nations or groups. It cannot affect power balances, political structures, or diplomacy -- unless its targets choose to bestow it with the importance to do so. The killing of innocent victims caught in such actions is important as personal tragedies, not as strategic threats.
The traditional Western response to terrorist violence has not been aggressive. Elevating terrorism to the level of state conflict -- as the US appears to have done in the case of Libya -- could change that tradition. Looking at terrorism in this way also gives an importance to terrorist events not inherent in them.
In what has been the conventional Western approach, terrorists are viewed as strategically powerless, unless their targets react vigorously. By doing so, the target gives credibility to the terrorist cause, tends to sour its own relationships with moderate states, and derails compromise solutions to regional problems.
Under this philosophy, the ideal response to terrorism would be to guard against it, but otherwise ignore it. If this were feasible, the argument goes, terrorism would accomplish nothing. Whatever minimizes the reaction to a terrorist action tends to negate achievement of the terrorists' goals; whatever maximizes it, supports their goals.
The US, in its intense preoccupation with terrorism, is now reacting in spades. Advocates of the conventional approach decry this trend.
They feel that traditionally more important US policy goals have become hostage to the counterterrorist effort. Progress toward a Middle East political settlement, relations with friendly Arab and Western European states, realistic probings for points of compatibility with hostile governments -- have all been adversely affected by the administration's preoccupation with the terrorist threat.
And, according to this school of thought, terrorist attacks from all sources will proliferate, in both the long and short term, as a result of the prominence given them by America's retaliatory acts.
The opposing philosophy underlies the recent US reprisal attacks against Libya.
This view holds that ``passive'' policies of minimizing the importance of terrorist attacks have utterly failed, and that the terrorist problem has come to outweigh the importance of smooth relations with Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and Arab moderates.
Terrorism cannot be dealt with merely by enhanced defensive measures, advocates of activist policies insist, and it will occur more frequently if it is ``appeased'' or ignored. Because of increasing state sponsorship of terrorism, it can no longer be viewed as mere symbolism, which is best ignored. Retaliation, over the long run, will intimidate the state sponsors of terrorism and lessen its frequency.
Under such a policy, terrorism is elevated in importance from the isolated actions of elusive, marginal groups to the level of a new form of state conflict.
Advocates of these alternative philosophies disagree on a number of issues:
Will a policy of sustained reprisals lessen or increase the frequency of terrorist events from Libya and other sources in the long run?
Is the damage to relations with Arab, European, and Communist states important, and is it likely to be longlasting?
Is internal Libyan opposition to Muammar Qaddafi likely to be fortified or weakened as a result of retaliatory raids? Specifically, is latent military opposition strengthened or decreased?
If the new US policy is sustained, a choice may ultimately be required about striking other state sponsors of terror. Iran and Syria, not to mention the Soviet Union, have been implicated in such activity. Both Iran and Syria would constitute far more difficult military and political targets than Libya, yet are probably responsible for more terrorism than Libya.
For the moment, a clear choice has been made by the Reagan administration to maximize, not minimize, the importance of terrorism by treating it as more than an act of the powerless. Most Western nations, to date, are not on board.
The writer was a government official for two decades before becoming a consultant on international affairs.