Essential Points for Talking About the War on Terrorism

Americans hear conflicting messages about how to think and talk about terrorism. As a result, the message of freedom and justice is often muted or muddled.

Americans can do better. There are core ideas that should serve as a taproot for a consensus on how to understand and describe our enemies — and ultimately how to defeat them.

Specifically, we should:

1. Reject calls for appeasement. Believing that concessions will stem transnational terrorism would be a grave mistake.

Usama bin Laden, for example, has promoted attacks by arguing that the West is a "paper tiger" with little stomach for prevailing in a long war. Appeasement would only reinforce this belief.

One act of appeasement is the failure to call this conflict "war." Terrorists believe that they are at war with us. From their perspective, our failure to acknowledge this fact is an act of cowardice and weakness. Refusing to recognize that we are at war only encourages the enemy to be more warlike.

2. Acknowledge that there is no single enemy. Various terrorist networks pose different kinds of local, regional and global threats. Many different terrorist networks are at work around the world. The distinct threats posed by different terrorist groups require a differentiated U.S. policy custom-made for each group, not a one-size-fits-all approach.

3. Understand that poverty is not the "root cause" of terrorism. Many terrorists come from middle-class backgrounds and were indoctrinated and trained in Western Europe.

Terrorists purport that violence is an appropriate way to solve societal ills. Discrediting that belief is the first and most essential task in addressing the root causes of terrorism.

At the same time, the U.S. and its allies need to offer alternatives to terrorism that are real, credible and achievable means of making people free, safe and prosperous.

4. Accept that a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal will not defuse the terrorist threat. An enduring peace is clearly in the interest of all peoples in the Middle East, but terrorists are opposed to Israel's very existence as a sovereign state, not simply to making peace with it.

Additionally, many use the conflict as an excuse to push their own political agendas or to condone escalating violence. Their arguments only obscure the reality that a Palestinian-Israeli accord will not stop transnational terrorism.

5. Acknowledge that elections alone will not bring freedom and democracy. Elections alone are not democracy; they are the promise of democracy. Achieving peace and freedom takes years of effort and commitment.

As the U.S. has relearned from Iraq's difficult transition to a democratic society, free and fair elections do not guarantee freedom from terrorist attacks. Democracy comes from building the institutions that foster a resilient civil society, including freedom from corruption, upholding human rights, protecting freedom of the press and religious practice and ensuring equality of opportunity.

6. Remind audiences that many terrorist groups are revolutionary organizations that seek to impose their totalitarian ideology on Muslims as well as non-Muslims. Although Usama bin Laden seeks to provoke a clash of civilizations, he also promotes a clash within Islamic civilization. Al Qaeda has killed many thousands more Muslims than non-Muslims. Muslims have a major stake in defeating Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups because they are among the chief victims of their attacks and pay a heavy price when forced to live under terrorist regimes.

7. Not give up on moderate Muslims. Many Muslims reject terrorism, even in countries where the official rhetoric seems disturbingly warlike. Many Islamic scholars argue that terrorism — the intentional murder of innocents to achieve political goals — is completely illegitimate.

In some cases, moderate voices receive little notice in Western media. In other instances, individuals are fearful to speak out too loudly because of the threat from terrorists and their supporters. The U.S. should encourage Muslim political, religious and social leaders to denounce terrorism and cooperate in defeating terrorist groups.

Winning the war on terrorism will require understanding the enemy, delegitimizing its view of the world, offering a credible alternative, and demonstrating the will to prevail in the long war. Using the right words and ideas can help to speed the course to victory.

James Phillips is Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, where James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security.