Fighting terrorists requires understanding their concept of time

The struggle against terrorism can be improved only when the particular Islamist vision of time is first recognized, then challenged and transformed.

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed," says the poet William Butler Yeats, "and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned."

Today, this "tide" stands as a convenient metaphor for terrorism. Whether it can be stemmed in time, America's war on terror should certainly be conducted with a greater awareness and understanding of time.

True chronology in counterterrorism must embrace more than the uniform intervals of clocks. For America's determined Islamist terrorist enemies, time means something very personal. For these jihadists, real time has more to do with the subjective idea of felt time than it does with any standard measures of duration. Were it otherwise, the United States would already have been hit with substantial and potentially deadly follow-on strikes to 9/11.

Time's most authentic meanings are rooted in religion and culture. Historically, the idea of felt time – of time-as-lived rather than clock time – has its roots in ancient Israel. Rejecting the mundane idea of time as linear progression, the early Hebrews approached chronology as a qualitative experience. In that context, all time was logically inseparable from its personally incorporated importance.

The original Jewish prophetic vision was that of a community existing in time under a transcendent God. Political space in this vision was important, but not because of space itself. Instead, the significance of space (today we would speak of "land," especially in the Middle East) derived only from the uniquely sacred events that took place therein.

A greater awareness of the subjective metaphysics of time, a reality that is based not on equally numbered moments but rather upon representations of time as lived, should now guide the way America confronts its principal terrorist enemies. This means struggling to understand the manner in which these Islamists actually live within time. Ultimately, this requires an understanding of precise obligations that are drawn from their particular interpretations of faith and law.

If we determine that certain jihadist terror groups accept a very short time horizon in their plan for follow-on attacks to 9/11, our response to their planned aggressions and materialized expectations will have to be correspondingly swift. If, on the other hand, it would seem that this time horizon is substantially longer, America's defensive response could reasonably be more patient and less urgent. The exact duration of this enemy time horizon will always be determined by the terrorists' own idea of divine expectation.

It must be our main task, therefore, to identify and understand this idea, a task that would also affect the way in which we decide the increasingly critical trade-off between civil liberties and public safety.

An improved understanding of "terrorist time" would have special benefits in our dealings with the "suicide bomber."

This type of terrorist is uniquely afraid of death, so afraid that he is actually willing to kill himself as a means of becoming immortal. This paradoxical attempt to conquer death by dying in a homicidal way is a tactic to unstop time (the late Kurt Vonnegut wrote more generally about such notions in "Slaughterhouse Five.")

Truth, here, lies buried in paradox, and America can benefit from disinterring an apparent oxymoron. We must understand a core Islamist terrorist idea that real time does not have a "stop." For our time-centered terrorist enemies, who seek to soar above the mortal limits imposed by clocks, such real time is clearly sacred.

How, then, can counterterrorism be improved by incorporating culturally differentiated concepts of time?

The most obvious way to combat the Islamist suicide bomber's deadly notion of time is to disabuse him of such a notion. This would entail our prior realization that the suicide bomber sees himself as a religious sacrificer, who in full ceremonial action, seeks an escape from time.

Abandoning the profane time of ordinary mortals – a chronology that is linked to personal death – the Islamist suicide bomber prepares to transport himself into the divinely protected world of immortalized martyrs. It shouldn't surprise us that the temptation to sacrifice "infidels" at the purifying altar of jihad can be irresistible.

What must we do with our improved understanding of terrorist time? Clearly, by itself, America's narrow military war against terrorist infrastructures can never be the total solution. Rather, the immediate and corollary task must be to convince prospective suicide bombers, either directly or indirectly, that their intended "sacrifice" of "infidels" can never elevate them above the immutable limits of time.

Before we can win the war on terror, the jihadist terrorists will first need to be convinced that they are not now living in profane time, and that every intended act of sacrificial killing would represent an authentic betrayal of Islam.

The great majority of Islamic clergy all over the world may already accept this salutary view, however silently. We must now urge them to speak up – to call extremists back from the brink.

America's essential struggle against terrorism in time can be improved only when the particular Islamist vision of time is first recognized, then challenged and transformed.

Louis René Beres, a professor of international law at Purdue University, is the author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism, and international law.

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