Irish sting: Learn lessons from I.R.A.
More than 30 years after firing its first shots, the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army has ordered its members to dump their arms.
When will Osama bin Laden, or his successor, issue the same order? It's a fair bet that most people over the age of 45 will not live to see that day. The war on armed Islamic fundamentalism figures to last as long as Britain's campaign against armed Irish republicanism– the difference being the new war's global scale and capacity for slaughter.
There was no shortage of ruthlessness among I.R.A. leaders (though their ferocity was matched and often surpassed by the bigots who run the Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland), but compared with the Islamicists, the I.R.A. fought with kid gloves. The fighting in Northern Ireland produced a body count of about 3,000– nearly half of whom were killed by the British security services or Loyalist murder gangs. On September 11, 2001, the Islamicists killed that many in a dreadful hour or so.
The war on Islamic fascism seems likely to make the British almost nostalgic for the I.R.A.'s methods. After purging itself of the butchers who planted bombs in pubs, its tactics in later years included an almost Austen-like comedy of manners: The IRA would contact the police using a prearranged code, the caller would alert the police to the location of a bomb, and the police would respond in time to preserve human life, if not property.
It didn't always work that way– the I.R.A. certainly didn't warn Margaret Thatcher that it had planted a bomb in her hotel in 1984, nor did it warn the 11 civilians killed while watching a military parade in Enniskillen in 1987. (The I.R.A. actually apologized for the Enniskillen murders, and while this was hardly a comfort to the victims and their loved ones, it at least was a sign that its leaders were susceptible to public opinion. The bin Ladens of the world rejoice in the sorrow they create, and relish the outrage of crusaders and Jews.)
The end of the war in Northern Ireland leaves a legacy of lessons for the United States, the United Kingdom, and every other nation targeted for conversion or elimination by bin Laden's gang. The first remains the trickiest: how to deal with an irregular enemy in an irregular war? Until September 11, the United States prosecuted its irregular enemies– the people who tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, and the cleric who inspired them, Omar Abdul Rahman– in conventional fashion.
They were brought before a court, publicly tried and defended, and convicted in the usual manner. In other words, they were treated to the same justice that would be accorded any other criminal, any other murderer. In that sense, the U.S. was following the path of Mrs. Thatcher, who demanded that I.R.A. members taken prisoner be treated as common criminals.
In the case of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the U.S. justice system seemed to agree. (Of course, common criminals generally do not get expert legal counsel from the likes of Lynne Stewart.) After September 11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, however, the U.S. has been eager to give Islamic terrorists the rights and privileges the I.R.A. demanded in the late 1970's: those of a special category of prisoner.
I.R.A. members wished desperately to be treated as enemy combatants and not as common criminals. When we try Islamic terrorists in military tribunals, are we not allowing them a dignity they do not deserve and implicitly recognizing the political nature of their grievances?
The British experience with the I.R.A. also reminds us how important it is for a government to live up to its platitudes. When Britain began to try terrorism suspects in juryless courts, with only a judge deciding the fate of a defendant, it handed the I.R.A. a propaganda victory. Mrs. Thatcher said that I.R.A. members were common criminals, but the juryless courts suggested otherwise.
Again, the dilemma: Are our enemies legitimate soldiers in an irregular army, or simply mass killers? Another lesson that seems irrelevant today but could easily become relevant in the future concerns the mass internment of suspected terrorists and sympathizers.
Every August 9, republicans in Northern Ireland commemorate the night in 1971 when the British army raided Catholic homes in that province and hauled off people suspected of either being in the I.R.A. or of being helpful to the cause. They were jailed without charge.
Could that happen here, or perhaps in the U.K. again? The guess here is that we are being provoked to take such a step. What a mistake that would be.
As the I.R.A. trades bullets for ballots, the U.S. would do well to study the mistakes that Britain made over the last 30 years. There is no shortage of them.
Terry Golway is City editor of The New York Observer, where this essay first appeared. His most recent book is "So Others Might Live: A History of New York's Bravest–The FDNY from 1700 to the Present."