Terrorized by “Terror”


“TERROR” is a word that terrorizes us. To pronounce it is to evoke fear and dread. Americans experience all the nightmarish sensations of 9/11.  The visible horror of the Boston marathon bombings was intensified by the event’s association with “terror” – an abstract distillation of all that is alien and evil. The mainstream media had a field day with all this. They are expert at fanning diffuse emotion; not so good at illuminating matters. Was it an act of “terrorism?”  The country waited breathlessly for the word from Homeland Security, the White House, the FBI. As if the designation per se actually changed anything real. The name works like a potent drug that speeds the adrenaline flow. Acute anxiety, though, does little to clarify the danger or to sharpen our wits in trying to figure out what to do.

Hence, it is important to separate the multiple strands of meaning bound together in the notion of “terror” so as better to explain the phenomenon and to interpret its implications. One aspect of “terror” pertains to a strategy for achieving political ends. Such a strategy can take either of two forms: that of an insurgent group trying to displace an existing government; that of a government or occupier trying to suppress an opposition movement. They share a key trait: targeting civilians with violent means.  That tactic has a dual purpose. First, to sow fear among the populace so that they will take actions to accommodate the attacker. Those actions range from joining the insurgency, abetting it, and/or withdrawing loyalty from the existing government. The desired ancillary effect is to erode the populace’s confidence that the authorities can provide security and stability. This has been the logic behind terrorism as strategy in many places: inter alia Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, Iran, Kashmir, Sri Lanka. From the other angle, the authority in power can use violence to punish civilians who are seen as accommodating the insurgents. It aims to intimidate – to drive home the message that if the insurgents shelter with civilians (including their kin), those civilians are liable to become victims. This latter pattern has been evident in the conduct of American occupations and counter-insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia as well as massively in Vietnam. The United States, in this sense, has engaged in terror in all of those places.

The definitions of terror currently employed by Washington are far more ambiguous. The United States government has passed laws (e.g. The Patriot Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that are grounded on broad formulations of what constitutes terrorist acts. They include an encompassing category of aiding and abetting terrorism. These statutes are so loosely drawn that, as a practical matter, a terrorist is anyone the authorities want to declare a terrorist. It should be noted that the US government’s charge against the Boston bomber includes “the use of weapons of mass destruction.” Anyone want to define WMD in this context?  For scholarly and analytical purposes, therefore, the term “terrorism” as widely employed has no value – unless the subject of study is its several uses and abuses.  For the purpose of making ethical judgments, these broad formulations are equally pointless since they do not frame the questions of standards, responsibility and accountability in any instructive way. In the vocabulary of American officials, and most commentators, “terrorism” is used for hortatory purposes alone.

Placed against this background, the common assumption that terrorism is the characteristic asymmetric instrument of insurgents, qualitatively different from the uses of violent force by established governments/occupiers, does not hold up. Certainly, it needs significant qualification. It is true that today at the declaratory level all states denounce terrorism and condemn attacks on civilians. There is no disagreement on that score. Consensual prohibitions against launching or supporting terrorist acts, though, are of little significance absent an agreed, explicit definition – something that does not exist nor will it be forthcoming. Both terrorist acts by non-state actors, and those connected to state actions, pose daunting analytical challenges – ones that stem in part from the interest of the parties involved in avoiding crisp definitions.

The first hurdle is the dilemma encapsulated in the commonplace saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. That is to say, the cause in whose name the act is committed influences how we judge it. Few if any government leaders candidly state that. The record is clear, however. One example: the United States has just rehabilitated the Mujahedeen-e Khalq -MEK, the radical Iranian organization whose extreme acts of violence got it placed on everyone’s list of terrorist organizations some years ago. Why the turnaround? Other than MEK’s aggressive public relations campaign that involved MEK spreading around millions in speakers fees to a host of American public figures, the organization is a bitter opponent of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington also backs rebels in the Iranian province of Baluchistan who periodically attack both military and civilian targets. Then there are the “death squads” that the United States encouraged and, in some cases, trained which wreaked havoc in several Latin American countries in the 1980s and 1990s. A number of other states behave similarly.

A second hurdle can be posed as a question: does it matter who precisely pulls the trigger? That raises subtle issues concerning public ethics. Let it be said that it makes no difference from the perspective of the victim. Furthermore, if the agent could act thanks to someone else creating permissive or necessary conditions, then the latter shares culpability. Apportioning blame under these circumstances becomes a political exercise more than it is an analytical one. Certainly, it cannot pass as an exercise in law enforcement.

Consider drone strikes. The United States government knows full well that it is routinely killing innocent civilians. It may not target them per se, but it accepts those casualties as unavoidable trade-offs for achieving the desired objectives of the drone strikes, e.g. killing bad guys. That decision is both a practical one and a moral one. Practical in a sense that the US pays a political price on the ground, and diplomatically, which it is prepared to accept. Moral in the sense that it is advancing a crude ends/means justification in defense of its actions. Moreover, even the question of intent is not crystal clear. Why? Civilian casualties are not always just an unintentional cost – as noted above; they also can figure as a gain where there is a desired effect of discouraging civilians from sheltering bad guys – and of discouraging bad guys from putting relatives or friends at risk.

There are further delineations to be made. In ascribing responsibility for a terrorist act, should we separate planners from organizers from executants? This is an issue that often arises in more mundane criminal matters. That is why the law refers to accessories, to conspiracies, etc. The ethical issue is a variant of that which arises in cases of state sponsorship – as discussed above. The practical policy issue centers on the methods for defeating a group that employs terror, i.e. do you concentrate on decapitating it (going after the planners and instigators) or disrupting its operational capacity (going after logistics and skilled operators) or preventing individual acts.  One thing can be said with confidence; if the focus of a counter-insurgency campaign flits from one to the other, failure is assured. That is part of the reason for our dismal performance in Afghanistan.

In South Vietnam, we tried all three (except for assassinating the Communist leadership in Hanoi), doing everything but incinerating the entire countryside and still failed. As for countervailing a strategy of violent intimidation by a government or occupier, the options for an insurgency are far more limited. It comes down to perseverance in wearing down the opponent – an approach that nearly always succeeds when the brunt of the counter-insurgency is being borne by foreigners. They inevitably estrange the locals and themselves get too fatigued to carry on. So they quit.

Motivation, too, varies. To start with, we should make a distinction between individual andstructural factors. Personality and personal experiences (actual or vicarious) count – although in particular cases there is considerable variations of the terrorist psychology profile. Events ‘out there’ that provoke anger and hostility can be refracted through personality in numerous ways. The activating or catalyzing factor that prompts the jump from feeling to act can be either something very personal or a particular occurrence somewhere in the world. In the case of the Boston bombers, there does not seem to have been a single, immediate proximate catalyst. Rather, Tamerlan the leader was impelled toward the brink by a combination of the two, i.e. acute life disappointments and reiterated, violent American actions in the Islamic world.

What intrigues us is the ease with which some of these people make the transition to action. The normal psychological constraints of instinctive inhibition about killing innocents/strangers, socialized norms, etc. seem unnaturally weak. The old European anarchists were loners, living in cellars, and out of touch with everyday society. They also usually targeted leaders. These two do not fit that pattern. One of course was married to an American and had a young child. That is why I wonder as to whether, to some degree, the easy resort to radical violence is not facilitated by a culture wherein so much of life is lived episodically – each event and situation only loosely connected to an established pattern of existence. Another extreme version of same is the phenomenon of people “re-inventing” themselves.  Atavistic passion meets post-Modernism.

Multiple grievances against the United States are felt by millions of Muslims; they create a free-floating angst. It is an underlay of emotion and attitude conducive to acts of terrorism. That in itself tells us little about an individual’s readiness to commit a terrorist act – something that remains very rare measured against the populace of angry disaffected. To firm up our grip on this complex psychology, we would have to examine whether there are additional differences between individuals who carry out terrorist acts and those who plan insurgencies that rely on elements of terror. Furthermore, in the first category there may be a difference between suicide bombers and others who commit terrorist acts.

One last distinction: to place in a single category the Iraq or Afghan insurgencies, on the one hand, and isolated acts of terrorism, on the other, makes no sense. Primary motivation is simpler. It’s not very difficult to understand why Iraqi Sunnis took up arms against the US and the government we put in place. That the al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia faction conducted more acts of ‘terror’ is probably correct, but the main point is that they and other insurgent groups there shared a logical political calculus that incorporated violence against civilians into a strategy.

Any systematic attempt to parse the meanings of the term “terrorism” is likely to be frustrated, however earnest the effort. It is a laudable aim to clarify policy choices as a prelude to making more informed decisions more candidly explained to the public.  But that is politically unrealistic in today’s climate. Our leaders thrive in obscurity. That allows ulterior motives to be concealed, contradictions to be masked, measures of succeed blurred, responsibility for failure eluded, careers to be advanced, pet ideas to be protected, ratings to rise, reputations to be burnished, elections to be won, and memoirs to appear credible. So, cries of havoc are almost certain to signal the reaction to any act of violence that they can pronounce “terrorism.”

Agitated by their leaders, the frightened pack will howl in the night.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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