Because the idea of “terror” is a definitional and circumscribing topic for our “way of life,” perhaps for ways of life at all, we should not be surprised if it is not merely difficult to define2, but ends up seeming to connect everything to everything – if every particular question explodes like a conceptual bomb striking ever other question in the vicinity.
That any bomb is a “WMD” for purposes of the law might merely be a typical instance of a legal designation differing from a popular or political one, but the law may on occasion have the better of such distinctions. The point for the law seems to be that engaging in “mass destruction” is immediately a crime against society, an attack on (the) people as well as an attack on particular persons. The federal terrorism statute just encodes the understanding that in making a bomb a criminal shows a disregard for life: It is another dimension of criminality, and points to premeditation and other aspects of intent. The significance of the infraction, or its usefulness or importance at trial and sentencing if things ever reach that point, will depend on other circumstances, and be as much a practical as an ideal-legal question. The fact that bomb-making may be inherently terroristic for purposes of the law does not mean that acts involving some other weapon may not also be crimes against society. It could be that someone preparing a rifle has the same intent as someone else making a bomb, but the fact that someone is making a bomb remains strong evidence of criminal intent, neglect of human life, and specifically of a willingness to terrorize. Someone taking care of a rifle could have many uses in mind.
More generally, in a social-political order built on individual rights, with its roots in an 18th Century metaphysics of the individual and natural or God-given “certain inalienable rights,” “mass terror” is fundamental negation on the plane of social-political conduct: It denies the existence of such rights at all. It does not see individuals, or for that matter life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness. It has pre-alienated those rights. It treats them as irrelevant and absurd, or worse. It says that they are destructive, evil-working lies.
In this connection, we can certainly observe terroristic elements to Newtown and Columbine, even if by “terror” we usually are referring to political violence in the conventional sense of “political” – governments, parties, laws, and so on. The insanity of a school shooter and the implacability of a political or theo-political fanatic overlap here: Both the pathological killer and the zealot hate “this world,” but so, too, in a way, do the good, moderate liberal-democratic citizens who resort to torture and terror in the professed hope of defending, restoring, or building a better world than the one made hateful by the terrors perpetrated by others. Regarding Blaise’s observation on bombing German and Japanese civilians, those responsible for the campaigns openly used the word “terror” to describe their tactics and objectives. The Germans did so more self-consciously and systematically at first, even giving the name terror-attack (Terrorangriff) to the military tactic, as they employed it and as they claimed it was being employed against them, though as Blaise also indicates, and as the Nazis were very aware, the usefulness of terror was in no way a modern discovery.
All of these terms and concepts flow into each other: Torture also very often has the character of terrorism, as exemplary violence against selected victims. “Terror leads to torture, and torture leads to terror.”3 It may be helpful for us to recognize, unless it is more important for us not to admit it, that the American or liberal-democratic way of torture-terror is that it’s OK if the other guy tortures-terrorizes first. The Germans, the Japanese, the South, the Indians, Communists, Al Qaeda, Saddam: They all “asked for it” by insisting on ways of life that we could not accept without agreeing to the impairment and displacement of the way of life, the non-torturing-terrorizing way of life, we insist on.4 This conclusion on our part is easy to portray as hypocritical or as a mad abstraction, but these criticisms do not rise to the level of the argument or its necessity: They do not comprehend the provocation as understood from within the liberal-democratic value system, which is not merely an abstract value system, but concrete, a complex system at work in the world. The contradiction is also neither new, nor unique to America. It is the primordial self-defense justification written in modern forms of extreme violence. The Reign of Terror can be described as another such reign of terror-against-terror, for example – just one among very many, potentially – but the uniquely well-developed American expertise with the contradiction in its modern age forms, and America’s world-historical position, are interdependent, if not the same thing.
The liberal-democratic society at war turns to torture-terror with the objective of eliminating torture-terror, an objective that the establishment of the liberal-democratic rule-of-law order is thought to be most likely to achieve to the greatest extent achievable. When we are not feeling particularly tortured-terrorized, we are more inclined to pretend that being fundamentally opposed to torture-terror is actually the same thing as promising never to engage in it. However, all war amounts inherently to socialized torture (or terror), and “everybody breaks,” and “the enemy has a vote.” The terrorist seeks to torture the enemy society, our society – the good, liberal-democratic society – into revealing its secret, a cruelly judgmental version of the plain-sight secret that the good society is and always has been and can only have been something other than it portrays itself as being, that it is, among other bad things, an edifice built on a foundation of maimed corpses that needs continually to be re-filled. The belief that some version of this truth is the most important and all-inclusive truth may be typical of terrorist ideologies generally, and it is also a truth that a certain kind of sophomorically rigorous mind, the Holden Caulfield phoney-hating mind, cannot get around. The thought of the insanity of so-called sanity drives it insane, and makes the extremely irrational appear no more or less rational than any other conduct. (The problem is related to the fundamental inability of reason to provide its own reason for being.) The idea ties the school shooter or post office shooter or serial killer to the somewhat more conventionally unconventional political radical and also to the religious zealot. It is the idea of the truth whose recitation, or expression through counter-enactment, the liberal-democratic society finds intolerable, torturous, since that society is built on a rationale that, if universally accepted and applied, would make torture-terror impossible.
The proponents of that society live in seemingly well-justified fear, easily excited into terror, that disbelief in their necessary fiction will destroy their or our absolutely all-important project. For the same reason a truly impartial judgment of these matters might appear as nihilistic as the acts and outlooks it assesses. Extreme impartiality can also be a kind of terrorism from the perspective of the good society, even from the perspective of most of those who consider themselves its honest critics.
- …though one whose overall approach I reject, as I also reject Michael Cohen’s somewhat similarly themed post at The Guardian, an object lesson in liberalist incomprehension of its own limitations. [↩]
The original attempts to define Terrorism for purposes of international law in fact focused on attacks on officials, including diplomats, as representatives of their states or, using the broad definition, communities. See, for example, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitions_of_terrorism#League_of_Nations
In the dryly humorous Wikipedia way, the above-linked entry makes the following observation early on:
A 2003 study by Jeffrey Record for the US Army quoted a source (Schmid and Jongman 1988) that counted 109 definitions of terrorism that covered a total of 22 different definitional elements. Record continued “Terrorism expert Walter Laqueur also has counted over 100 definitions and concludes that the ‘only general characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence.’ Yet terrorism is hardly the only enterprise involving violence and the threat of violence. So does war, coercive diplomacy, and bar room brawls”
- Paraphrasing Paul W Kahn, discussed at length here. [↩]
- …that “constitutes” us for ourselves. [↩]