Duh… Terrorism is an ‘ism’

The entry for “terrorisme” in the 1989 Encyclopaedia Universalis begins: “To terrorize does not mean to ‘terrify,’ to ‘strike with fear,’ but following [the nineteenth centurty lexicographer] Littré ‘to establish terrorism, the rule of terror.” (my translation) This usage of the word originated in the revolutionary government of France, specifically a period between September 1793 and July 1794 when the entire government was subsumed under the Committee for Public Safety, lead by Maximilien Robespierre, and thousands of people were put to death by Guillotin’s beheading machine. This explains why the French still think of terrorism primary as government through arbitrary violence and state-sanctioned murder perpetrated on its own citizens. What we have come to call in English ‘terrorism,’ with its international and domestic (but unsanctioned) sub-divisions, is apparently unrelated, a false cognate.

When we reserve the term ‘terrorism’ for institutional violence directed at domestic enemies, the actions of contemporary bombers and guerrillas appear to fit within the category of crimes. Indeed, even in the contemporary context there are good arguments for describing militant zealots and suicide bombers as criminals, guilty of crimes against humanity, or acts of genocide. It is not clear what the notion of ‘terror’ adds to our understanding of their aims and purposes, save that, like all crime, we fear becoming its victim.

This redescription does not even preclude waging the ‘war’ on terrorism that the US administration coined following the 9/11 attacks: the so-called terrorists of Al-Quaeda are simply war criminals, part of ad hoc and non-territorial militaries who have attacked without a formal declaration of war. In either case (war or crime), we need not have invented new categories like ‘enemy combatant’ or ‘terrorism.’

I usually point to G.W.F. Hegel to justify this alternative typology, since his reading of the French Revoluton is so crucial for me. Using the events of that revolution to critique the work of Jean-Jacques Rouuseau, he perfectly sums up the theoretical conflict that we would come to apply to the Nazis and the Soviets. Terror, for Hegel, was explicitly the weapon of the victorious faction. That is, it was intended to designate an instrument of the state in its claim to represent the general will, based on its failure to do so perfectly. Fear of death, which has been the absolute master from the first encounter between individuals resulted in physical conflict to determine superiority, is not the same as terror in Hegel’s use.

Terror is the specific fear of death by state sanction for opposing the will of the people in thought or action. It is a kind of subservience to the claim of universality that threatens to cause the individual to allow herself to be enslaved in body and mind. In practice, Terror is the result of fatal forms of punishment used injudiciously but in a juridical mode, rather than the gratuitous and random acts of deadly violence unleashed by factions with no state support at all.

On Hegel’s account, it is difficult to see why a suicide bomber would be called a terrorist, except perhaps that they espouse a cause. A politically motivated hijacker is no more than a criminal who, by his methods, denies the very notion of law or universal rule. Without state legitimacy, it cannot live up to the real fearfulness of a power that kills out of suspicion of intention rather than as punishment for an action. The very indiscriminateness of modern-day terrorist fatalities denies this possibility. Much closer to Hegel’s definition of terror would be the fear of being singled out as a potential politically motivated criminal; this fear of suspicion and accusation carries all the significant signs of terror.

Another sort of connection can be made between state-sanction and terrorism, both as a definitional matter and in practice. The myth of an outlaw billionaire mastermind, our current model for Osama bin Laden, corresponds best with the absurd arch-enemies that confront James Bond. Frankly, it is quite impossible to be a billionaire, or even a millionaire, without governmental support. Not only must those millions be issued as currency by nation-states and stored in banks, but they must be amassed with the assistance of political power and against the possibility of taxation or regulation. The weapons and training needed to commit acts of terrorism are only available at the behest, or through the willful ignorance, of nation-states and international regulatory bodies. In the case of al-Quaeda, both bin Ladin’s initial fortune and his subsequent support can be traced to two nations, militaries, and covert espionage agencies: the USA and Saudi Arabia.

In a very real sense, then, the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 were state-supported, and the ‘rule of terror’ instituted came with the implicit sanction of at least one nation-state: Saudi Arabia. Just as Robespierre, who was convicted and put to death on the guillotine using the same spurious rules he had instituted, did not know exactly what targets would be chosen by the terroristes, but merely gave them the justification that led to his own execution, my claim is not that either the US or Saudi governments expected the most recent attacks. However, part of my argument is that the reasonable expectations of bureaucracies fall far short of those occurrences for which they ought to be seen as the cause. Providing the tools, motivation, and financing for the murder of innocents is a necessary (and perhaps even sufficient) condition for those murders: it is a cause, and not an insignificant or approximate one.

Now, if Hegel’s typology separates criminals from state-actors, and domestic state-actors from international ones, such that all acts of violence must be understood as either crime, state-terror, or warfare, what is the value in this new amalgamation that drives the so-called ‘war’ on ‘terror’? Why move from clear distinctions to murky ambiguities? The answer, I believe, is that we have systematically participated in an error in judgment. By telling ourselves we are fighting terrorism, when in fact we’re waging war, we’ve created a confused set of expectations and restrictions. Basically, we don’t know what we are doing.

It’s that simple: we wage war as if we are enforcing the law; we fight for freedom from mortality and danger, against organizations that do nothing to restrict our liberty, and we savor the irrational fear that notorious masterminds and fanatical bogeymen may be out to get us. In so doing, we separate ourselves from the thoughtful work that past generations have left us to deal with these problems: piracy and the hostis humanitis, suspicion of increasing our own state’s powers for interminable emergencies, and the racial/religious intolerances that only bolster our own sense of righteousness. If the context were Protestants v. Catholics, or whites v. blacks, we’d know that these techniques don’t work. For some reason, we think that this time, for this conflict, we’ve managed to discover an exception.

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