Why We Talk to Terrorists: response to Supreme Court ruling on "material support" of foreign terrorist groups

talkto.jpgIn John Brockman's Edge newsletter, an essay by Scott Atran (left) and Robert Axelrod (right), two social scientists who study and interact with violent groups "to find ways out of intractable conflicts." The piece is a response to a recent Supreme Court decision that amounts to a real "chilling effect" for anyone working for peace and reconciliation through dialogue with foreign groups that have a history of armed conflict. Before the ruling, we knew that sending money or guns to any of the four dozen groups currently designated by the secretary of state as terrorist organizations was punishable by up to 15 years in prison. But now the law has been clarified to show that, say, holding conflict resolution workshops with them, or even interviewing one of their officers for an op-ed piece, could merit the same penalty. This NPR News analysis is a good place to start for real-world examples.

From Atran and Axelrod's Edge essay:

In the course of this work and in our discussions with decision makers in the Middle East and elsewhere we have seen how informal meetings and exchanges of knowledge have borne fruit. It's not that religious, academic or scientific credentials automatically convey trust, but when combined with a personal commitment to peace, they often carry weight beyond mere opinion or desire.

So we find it disappointing that the Supreme Court, in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, ruled that any "material support" of a foreign terrorist group, including talking to terrorists or the communication of expert knowledge and scientific information, helps lend "legitimacy" to the organization. Sometimes, undoubtedly, that is the case. But American law has to find a way to make a clear distinction between illegal material support and legal actions that involve talking with terrorists privately in the hopes of reducing global terrorism and promoting national security.

Edge 321 -- July 8, 2010 (Edge.org)


  1. This is going to sound crazy, but I think that we should determine what global terrorism is and whether it actually exists before we start doing terrible things in the name of stopping it.

  2. I must comment on this stupidity from NPR:

    “While there’s no serious dispute about some groups on the list, like al-Qaida, human rights groups have criticized the list as lacking coherence. In addition, many organizations designated as terrorist have both political and military wings.”

    The point of a “political wing” is to provide covert cover for an outlawed organization’s activities. If an organization is outlawed, the entire organization is illegal, including both its overt and covert operations. The only difference between political and military wings is how well the police know that the two are not separate.

    1. Actually, that’s probably a reference to Hamas, which has both a military and political wing. The political wing, far from providing cover for atrocities, is trying to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine and calling on Israel to comply with the UN and withdraw to it’s pre-1967 borders.

      Hamas is not “illegal” or “outlawed” by any international legal body. The UN has not declared Hamas a terrorist group. It has been designated “terrorist” by the US, EU, Japan, Canada and Israel, though not by Russia, India, China, etc… It is the legitimately elected representation of the Palestinian people. The 2006 Palestinian Authority Legislative Council election was even endorsed by the Carter Center. Does this mean a former President is aiding “terrorists”. If you are a Zionist, it might mean that, but only to you.

      It is extremely unconstitutional for the US to declare that Americans can support Israel (while they are engaged in aggressive warfare and terrorism, including the confirmed use of extra-judicial killings, bombing civilians, using human shields, torture, chemical weapons, collective punishmen, and hate speech by high-ranking officials such as Avigdor Lieberman) while declaring that Americas can’t support Hamas.

      Hamas has not attacked the US, though Israel has done so (for example, USS Liberty and the American citizen shot dead aboard the Gaza flotilla). Why should I be forced to side with Israel under penalty of law?

      Personally, I’m secular, and I’m pacifistic, and I’m not really fond of Hamas (though I understand why the Palestinian people are, it’s because Fatah is a US/Israeli-run fraud). But any fair comparison would say that if they are the David of terrorism, then Israel is the nuclear-armed, US funded, Goliath of terrorism. If we can’t support Hamas, why can we support Israel?

    2. So what you’re saying is that Sinn Feinn, the political arm of the IRA, was just a cover to legitimize terrorism, and was later recognized as a legitimate political organization? And what of the Hagganah & the Stern Gang, which were terrorist organizations within British Palestine after WWII? Leaders of those parties formed the first government of Israel. By your logic, George Washington and all the founders of the USA should be declared terrorists, and the school books rewritten!

  3. So, when the CIA/other US intelligence agency infiltrates a so-called terrorist organization (and now I’m thinking of the US peace group Michael Moore featured in Fahrenheit 9/11), that’s OK, but anyone else who wants to actually UNDERSTAND the motivations of groups with grievances becomes a criminal by opening a dialog?

    That’s INSANE. It’s criminalizing understanding.

  4. > That’s INSANE. It’s criminalizing understanding.

    That’s right, citizen, you are not supposed to “understand”, for we have always been at war with -errr- the terrorists!

  5. We don’t negotiate with terrarists here in Amerca…and by negotiate I mean “acknowledge their existence with anything other than a nucular warhead.”

    1. Unless you’re the most venerated Republican figure of the late 20th century, in which case you secretly sell them weapons and use the proceeds to fund other terrorists.

  6. They told me that if I voted for McCain, the Department of Justice would continue to criminalize legitimate activity on the grounds of “fighting the war on terror”.

    And they were right!!

  7. Remember, only the government can protect you from the scary terrorists. Don’t you dare think of trying to solve any problems yourself.

  8. Thread-destroying Zionism vs. Hamas flamewar in 3… 2… (prove me wrong, kids, prove me wrong)…

  9. When war becomes the law of the land, then you will find yourself fighting a war. Either you’ll fight the war that you’re told to fight, or you’ll fight against a government that’s outlawed peacemaking.

  10. The logic behind not WANTING to give them understanding, IMHO, is that it gives the message “Hey, want our attention and understanding? Start by blowing some of us up! We listen to people who kill our friends and families!”

    … We cannot validate their methods by allowing them to work.

    There has to be a better way, but encouraging terrorism isn’t it.

    1. If you don’t give your enemy an escape route, he will come straight through you. If you want the US to look like Baghdad, just keep turning your back on diplomatic solutions.

  11. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this ruling. Are lawyers giving support by working in defense of an accused terrorist? Is it material support to terrorists if someone contributes to their legal defense fund? I assumed those were kind of integral to having fair trials, although I’m not sure how you make sure terrorists keep their legal defense funds separate from their weapons of mass destruction funds.

    And let me guess, this is all for people or groups pronounced “terrorists” by fiat, not people convicted of specific crimes. So supporters of Nelson Mandela and the ANC would have been guilty of this not too long ago.

  12. Isn’t really new. One of my university’s most respected professors has done work in Gaza which has involved interviews etc with, and books on, Hamas. She can’t enter the USA.

  13. Speaking of the mideast and support, the US S Court should next consider the issues of:

    1) tax-deductible donations to settlement projects and their ‘security needs’ in the Occupied Territories, supplied by a number of Jewish American charities – probably breaking int’l law and threatening peace and lives

    2) the supplying of US weapons to Israel which it has used many a time (at least since the 82 Lebanon invasion) to commit documented war crimes – in which case this policy contravenes actual US laws not simply int’l ones

  14. Based on this twisted logic, I would think the American Red Cross, as an affiliate of the ICRC, is in real deep water — treading as fast as they can to avoid being charged with the same thing.

  15. We love being heroes. We love war. It’s a crime to take that away from us with your namby-pamby European liberal “talking to people.”

  16. how far does this ruling go? e.g., if terrorists pray to god for help for their injured in an american place of worship, and they are answered with where the locations of hospitals are that will provide the help that they are requesting, is god subject to arrest? more realistically, can ministers no longer ask their congregations to materially support peace if the request inadvertently ends up violating this supreme court decision even if they are only quoting scripture, e.g., Matthew 5:44-45 or Luke 6:35-38? or, answer where the local hospital is?

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