Whether we like it or not, the world is grappling with this question under the current wave of terrorism under the Islamic State (IS).
Many democratic countries have adhered to the saying: “No negotiations with terrorists or those threatening to use violence against peaceful citizens.” We will continue fighting, chasing, and imprisoning them until we eliminate them.
In other words, democracies should neither give concessions when facing terrorism or those using violence or threatening to do so, nor should they be giving any rewards to terrorists regardless of their reasons or justifications.
Why? Usually the argument can be split into one of three answers. First, negotiation gives legitimacy to the terrorists and also legitimises the use of violence.
Second, negotiating with terrorists sends a negative signal to those wanting to enact change peacefully. It tells them that the only way to enact real change is through violent means.
Third, negotiating with terrorists undermines international efforts to fight and besiege terrorism.
These three principles neatly summarise the position that tens of states have taken, and is even approved by many reports from the United Nations (UN) and their security council.
The reality on the ground, however, is that democratic governments negotiate in secret with terrorists, and it is one of the dilemmas in politics; what is declared can, and sometimes even should, contradict with what is actually done.
The British government has been adamant about conducting secret negotiations with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), despite the fact that the British have labelled them as terrorists. Negotiations actually increased after IRA-affiliates attacked British government headquarters at 10 Downing Street in 1991.
Moreover, the Spanish government negotiated in 1988 with the separatist group ETA, despite the fact that to the Spanish government, the ETA were deemed to be a racist, terrorist, separatist group and that they had six months prior carried out a terrorist attack that killed 21 people in a Spanish supermarket.
Even Israel, a country that claims they are the most affected in the world by terrorism, finds themselves often having to negotiate with those that carried out the 1993 bombings, which resulted in the Oslo Accords.
So, there is a clear delineation between what is said and what is done when it comes to negotiating with terrorists. This separation is often necessary in order to ameliorate the consequences of their no negotiation policy while allowing them to attempt to negotiate favourable terms.
When some specialists studied the notion of “terrorising terrorism”— the state using terrorism against terrorists in order to deter or eliminate a threat— they found that terrorism is like a cancer. When fighting a cancer, you destroy both the cancerous cells in a body and the healthy cells around it.
I sought to explain this issue to authorities that had arrested high school students who had been arrested for demonstrating. Their detention has been renewed and they continue to be imprisoned alongside a myriad of different criminals. When they are finally released they will have missed valuable time at school and may inherit certain values and habits in prison, which will harm them psychologically in the long term.
On top of it all, many of the people who have come out to protest against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood have begun to protest the detention of their friends and family. These people have faced beatings and insults, pushing them to become more extreme.
At the end of the day, it is in the woods of extremism that the tree of terrorism grows. Those of us who think of this problem in the long term should demand we cut the political oxygen feeding the woods in order to stop it from producing terrorism.
Therefore, we must first declare that there should be no negotiation with any terrorist or anyone threatening society with terrorism. This point is not open to discussion and there is no room for the offering of concessions of any kind.
We must also recognise, however, that negotiations with individual terrorists should be possible, but only if it serves to stifle terrorism. There is no escaping the punishment, but an individual could have their punishment reduced in exceptional circumstance. These individuals could be shown amnesty in the long-run, after having served some of their punishment, by reintegrating into society while also revealing the plans and location of terrorist cells and their sources of funding. These people should also make clear and binding promises to refrain from engaging in political activity and to always cooperate with authorities.