This bibliographic installment in the Directed Reading series treats terrorism. The material below will have to suffice as a cursory introduction of sorts to the topic, albeit one colored by my particular moral, legal and political perspectives. We would do well to recall that “Bismark ‘terrorized’ Prussia by using the army as a means of social control; Nazi Germany imposed a reign of terror across Europe; German and allied air forces resorted to ‘terror bombing’ in the Second World War; and Stalin ruled Russia by terror.” Aerial bombardment (carpet bombing) of North Vietnam and Cambodia by the United States during the Vietnam War is likewise aptly termed terror bombing. Thus, although the focus in the media, the academy, and the commanding heights of political power of late has been on the terrorist acts of non-State actors, as Noam Chomsky has not tired of telling us, terrorism is not only a weapon of the weak and desperate but is also prominent in the arsenal of those acting on behalf of the most powerful nation-state on the planet...and to far more devastating effect.
Few words are plagued by so much indeterminacy, subjectivity, and political disagreement as ‘terror,’ ‘terrorize,’ ‘terrorism,’ and ‘terrorist.’ The ordinary linguistic meanings of these variant terms are instantly evocative and highly emotive, referring at a literal level to intense fear, fright or dread. By itself, a literal meaning is not particularly instructive in distilling a legal concept of terrorism, since ‘every form of violence is potentially terror-inspiring to its victim,’ from mugging to warfare.
...[T]he peculiar semantic power of the term [terrorist], beyond its literal signification, is its capacity to stigmatize, delegitimize, denigrate, and dehumanize those at whom it is directed, including legitimate political opponents.
There are no clean lines between terrrorism and other forms of political violence, and the debate about defining terrorism is also a debate about the classification of political violence in all its myriad forms: riot, revolt, rebellion, war, conflict, uprising, revolution, subversion, intervention, guerilla warfare, and so on.
Invidious moralization tends to accompany reference to terrorism, casting it as a titanic, Manichean, existential struggle of polarities: humanity and inhumanity; civilization and barbarism; freedom and fear; modernity and pre-modernity; liberal democracy and apocalyptic, eschatological, phantasmagorical nihilism; the rational and the pathological; law and outlaw; friend and enemy; the West and Others; Christianity and Islam; light and dark; good and evil.
If terrorism is presented as an absolute threat, then counter-terrorism measures must also be unlimited. Labeling opponents as terrorists delegitimizes, discredits, dehumanizes and demonizes them, casting them as fanatics who cannot be reasoned with.
[I]f international law is not to become complicit in oppression by criminalizing legitimate political resistance, justifications for terrorist violence must be taken seriously by the law. [....] While a narrow class of terrorist acts may be excused by individual or group defences, some acts considered justifiable may still fall outside the scope of defences. To maintain the law's legitimacy, [we need to take seriously the possibility] that some acts of terrorism could, in exceptional cases, be regarded as ‘illegal but justifiable’ (or at least excusable) in stringently limited, objectively verifiable circumstances, possibly under the rubric of a ‘collective defence of human rights.’
[T]hree iconic figures — Yasser Arafat (PLO), Gerry Adams (IRA), and Nelson Mandela (ANC) — were at some point arguably responsible for terrorism by their organizations. While their degree of responsibility differs (particularly in organizations with ostensibly separate political and military wings), it is startling how persons once regarded as terrorists were later embraced as legitimate representatives of political movements, entitled to a share of State power, or even to Nobel Prizes (Arafat in 1994, Mandela in 1993). All were absolved of criminal responsibility for terrorism, as a precondition of involvement in political settlements.
— Ben Saul, Defining Terrorism in International Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
[We might view the terrorist] as a representative of this or that political, or politico-religious, grievance or program, with a range of tactics at his or her disposal, just like the rest of us, and, just like the rest of us, resorting from time to time to morally dubious or outrageous tactics.
Terrorism is not a tactic restricted to revolutionaries and other non-governmental groups. Doubtless many people would be surprised at the idea that governments and authorized governmental agencies do or can use terrorist methods for their political purposes, but such surprise is quite often the product of naivete or prejudice.
— C.A.J. Coady, Morality and Political Violence. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Terrorism is not an organization or a movement or even an ‘enemy’ that one can declare war on; terrorism is simply the tactic of indiscriminately attacking enemy targets--especially civilians--in order to sow fear, undermine morale, and provoke counterproductive reactions from one's adversary. It is a tactic that many different groups sometimes employ, usually when they are much weaker than their adversaries and have no good option for fighting against superior military forces. Zionists [e.g., especially the members of Irgun (or ‘Etzel’) and Lehi (or the Stern Gang)] used terrorism when they were trying to drive the British out of Palestine and establish their own State...and the United States has backed a number of ‘terrorist’ organizations in the past (including the Nicaraguan contras and the UNITA guerillas in Angola). American presidents have also welcomed a number of former terrorists to the White House (including PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who played key roles in the main Zionist terrorist organizations) which merely underscores the fact that terrorism is a tactic and not a unified movement.
— John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
The reduction of the Palestinian Authority to a mere terrorist entity with no political character is a denial of reality. But reducing Hamas to this concept is equally so, whatever its methods of action and reactionary nature. Hamas is primarily a nationalist movement that inserts the national claim into a religious logic
— Sylvain Cypel, Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse. New York: Overlook Press, 2006.
...[T]o be justified, terrorism should be subject to certain constraints, the most important of which is that it should be selective whenever possible and should initially at least be directed only against the actual perpetrators of the injustice against those who are now considering the use of violence as a response.
...[T]errorism in our time has probably been more concerned with the right to national self-determination than with any other single cause.
— Burleigh Taylor Wilkins, Terrorism and Collective Responsibility. New York: Routledge, 1992.
[There are a host of reasons that] suggest...the recent political philosophy of the affluent, liberal west may not afford the most useful point of entry for an investigation into problems of terror and terrorism.
All too often terrorism is the tactical choice simply because the perceived advantages it offers are so great. It costs relatively little in money and manpower. It has immediate effects and generates extensive and highly sensationalized publicity for one’s cause. It affords an emotionally satisfying outlet for feelings of rage and the desire for vengeance. It induces an acute sense of vulnerability in all those who identify with its immediate victims. And insofar as those victims are chosen randomly from among some very large group, the class of people who identify with them is maximized, so that an extraordinary number of people are given a vivid sense of the potential costs of resisting one’s demands. Figuratively and often literally, terrorism offers the biggest bang for one’s buck.
— Samuel Scheffler, “Is Terrorism Morally Distinctive?” The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2006): 1-17.
When it comes to terrorism, a phenomenon that almost always stirs fear and insecurity disproportionate to the actual danger, the temptation for governments to bend the rules and the truth becomes irresistible.
...[A]part from being a massive propaganda gift to militant Islamist extremism, the war in Iraq has led to terrorism on an even bigger scale.
One of bin Laden’s intentions back in 2001 [was to] portray the West as scared, emotionally vulnerable, overreactive, decadent and hypocritical about liberal values. The West has done a very good job of proving him right. The invasion of Iraq, the images of torture and the widely documented abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo and other U.S. detention facilities has left the U.S. reviled not only in the Arab world but throughout the West, undercutting the moral authority which is vital for any liberal democracy in dealing effectively with persistent terrorist violence.
There never was a ‘terrorist threat’ to western civilization or democracy, only to western lives and property. Such a threat becomes systemic only when democracy loses its confidence and when its leaders exploit public fear for political ends.
— George Kassimeris in the volume he edited, Playing Politics with Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
There are a number of clear political advantages to be gained from the creation of social anxiety and moral panics. In the first place, fear is a disciplining agent and can be effectively deployed to de-legitimize dissent, mute criticism, and constrain internal opponents. In an atmosphere of national peril, the appeal for political unity takes on greater moral force and voicing disagreement can be characterised as an act of disloyalty. Fear can lead ordinary citizens to act as the primary agents of censure themselves, both in terms of self-censorship (choosing to withhold their own doubts and disagreements in public discourse) and the censorship of others (expressing disapproval when confronted with dissenting or ‘disloyal’ opinions in others). This is because fear is corrosive of both political expression and moral courage. Either way, its primary function is to ease the pressure of accountability for political elites. An instrument of elite rule, political fear is in effect a political project aimed at reifying existing structures of power.
Within the pragmatic logic of counterterrorism, it seems obvious that the politics of fear can too easily become self-fulfilling prophesy. Exaggerating the terrorist threat and maintaining social fear actually emboldens and empowers terrorists; it provides them with incontrovertible evidence of their own ability to gain unlimited publicity and influence a terrified society through the threat of violence. Given that terrorism is essentially a form of political communication and therefore relies on the widest possible publicity, the politics of fear plays directly into the hands of militants. From this perspective, it is strategically counter-productive.
It can easily be demonstrated that state terrorism—the use or threat of state-sponsored violence to instil fear for political purposes—remains a far greater threat to individual and social security than the threat of dissident terrorism. Over the last few decades, states, including several liberal democracies, have tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of political opponents and caused massive social destruction to communities in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile, Spain, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Serbia, and Turkey—to name just a few. And government forces continue to employ violent repression and state terror in places like Chechniya, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar, among many others. State terror has always been a far greater threat to security than non-state terror, and yet, state terror is conspicuous by its absence from the public narrative of the terrorist threat—except of course, when it is cynically deployed to justify wars of ‘regime change.’
— Richard Jackson in George Kassimeris, ed., Playing Politics with Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Today, U.S. Special Operation Forces—who do not wear uniforms, operate behind enemy lines, do not openly display their weapons, and generally fail to conform to the rules of war—...could be considered terrorists in that they are neither soldiers nor civilians.
...[T]errorists are fighters who are even more in need of the traditional protections of the rules of war, for they inspire emotional reactions that are themselves often inhumane.
...[S]ome terrorists engage in indiscriminate violence and others do not.
[Setting aside for the moment the larger obligation of humane treatment], from the standpoint of retributive justice, terrorists—and all others, for that matter—are owed procedural due process considerations that are involved in establishing what they have done.
If terrorists are combatants, then they are owed the type of mutual respect that is paid to all combatants according to the Just War tradition. If we are to use the law/crime model, then terrorists are owed the full due process considerations that apply to any criminal suspect.
— Larry May, War Crimes and Just War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.