by Mal Fletcher

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

Terrorism is the use of violence or the threat of violence to coerce or manipulate people's behaviour.

The history of terrorism over the past 20 years reads like a medieval horror story gone wrong. There's a long list of terrorist actions, but some caught our attention in a very big way.

Like the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland where 270 people lost their lives (December 21). And the 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which left 168 people dead and hundreds more injured (April 19).

During the 1990s, authorities around the world began to identify a new breed of terrorist. These people were not necessarily poor or oppressed. They were often well educated and sometimes wealthy.

Many of them had spent a lot of time in western culture, apparently enjoying some of the good things it has to offer. They had very little in common with the people they later claimed to represent. For these individuals, becoming agents of terror was simply a matter of choice.

I suppose nothing defines modern terrorism like the horror of September 11, 2001. Young zealots from the other side of the world crashed four passenger airliners, using them as missiles of war. Two of them reduced the World Trade Centre to rubble. Another crashed into the Pentagon.

Three thousand people died that day, people from many nations. It was a defining moment for people everywhere who treasure their freedom.

Terrorist groups have always found ways to connect with each other, but the potential for international terror alliances has never been greater than it is now. Bomb-making secrets are shared through the Internet and weapons are traded online. Terror operatives can fly in and out of training camps in various corners of the world and their leaders can keep in touch using sophisticated satellite phones. Electronic funds transfer makes it easy for them to hide their funds and protect their sponsors.

One of the great forces that fuels international terrorism today is religious extremism. Some terrorists adopt a fiery religious outlook to add respectability to their murderous actions. They hijack religious teachings, twisting them to their own ends. Many times, their loose-living lifestyles prove that they have no real religious commitment. They're nothing more than cold-blooded killers, who use religion to draw other people in.

Teachers of religious extremism often align themselves with terrorist groups because they believe that these organisations will help them stop the spread of unhealthy values. They believe, and preach, that there's only one way to build God's kingdom: by wiping out the unbelievers and then enforcing heavy rules on the rest.

Extremists, by definition, take positions at the outer edges of a debate - they hate the middle ground. Their commitment to harsh, legalistic religion puts them at odds not just with people of other religions, but with people of their own faith too. Once the extremists have finished fighting their enemies, they often turn their anger inward, launching attacks amongst themselves. Innocent people are caught in the crossfire and whole nations can be crippled for generations.

Terror groups want to produce anarchy and disorder. That's what really makes them dangerous: they have no positive vision for the future. They offer only a negative view of the present and a hateful interpretation of the past. They set out a list of wrongs that they say need to be corrected - and sometimes, they have a point. But they can't offer any positive alternative to the status quo. They give no solutions to the pressing problems of hunger, poverty or disease - even among their own people. They are not builders, they're destroyers.

Here's the bottom line: terrorists want to manipulate the lives of others. That's what terrorism, at its most basic level, is all about - control. For a terrorist, the game's all about forcing others to act according to your agenda. It's not about communication, negotiation or persuasion, it's about force - the exercise of raw, naked power through violence and the threat of violence.

People the world over will tell you that Jesus was one of the greatest peacemakers who ever walked this earth. His life has inspired some of the finest modern advocates of peace, too: people including Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Yet, he lived during one of the most volatile periods in human history. He faced oppression, violence and extremism in a very personal way.