Friday, January 12, 2007

"Anti-State and State Terrorism: Strange Bedfellows?"

(This is a paper I presented at the NSSA Meeting in Las Vegas, April 7, 2006. I post it for feedback and comments from anyone who'd like to do so. I would appreciate the feedback as the paper was meant to be exploratory rather than definitive.)

My talk is in three parts. In the first part I offer a definition for terrorism, partly for clarity so that we know what we’re all talking about and partly because the definitions that I have seen are unsatisfactory. They either define terrorism overly broadly and therefore mislead (for essentially political reasons which will become clear as we discuss it), or they capture some aspects of terrorism, but they don’t focus on the part that I think is the essence of terrorism as opposed to other political strategies. This section could be subtitled: The Trouble with Terrorism.

In the second part I argue that anti-state and state terrorism require each other for the other’s existence and that they tend to provoke each other into being. They are the obverse side of the coin from each other.

Finally, in my third part, if I don’t run out of time, I argue that the anti-terrorism measures employed by the Bush/Cheney regime are not only ineffective: they are designed primarily to repress the US population and not to prevent terrorism.

Part One: definitions

The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

This definition is overly broad and over-inclusive. This is not surprising in that not only is the FBI a political institution, but the anti-terrorism campaign is presently especially high profile and highly politicized.

The operative word in the FBI definition is “unlawful,” not coercion or intimidation, since states use force as well. As Weber defined it, a monopoly over the legitimate use of force is the essence of what a state is:

A “state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." Max Weber

It isn’t violence or intimidation or coercion per se, therefore, that makes something coercive. It is whether or not that force is seen as lawful or legitimate. If it’s seen as legitimate, then it’s not terroristic. The FBI itself uses force and violence for political or social ends, but would not view its actions as unlawful. The question then is: how is “unlawful” understood? Who settles the question of what is unlawful?

When police officers beat and shoot people it’s normally seen as legitimate since they do so under the color of law. When military forces bomb and kill it’s normally seen as legitimate because they are acting in times and conditions of war.

The important issue here is that legitimacy or illegitimacy is not an inherent property of the act or acts, it is a question of interpretation.

One of my points then is that terrorism, as illustrated in the FBI’s definition, is very subjective. That’s not surprising to anyone here. Let’s take a look at another definition.

The US State Department defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" [Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d)].

This is a better definition but it excludes state sponsored terror since the agents of such terror are state actors.

Britannica Dictionary defines it thusly:

Terrorism, n.' the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective. Terrorism has been practiced by political organizations with both rightist and leftist objectives, by nationalistic and religious groups, by revolutionaries, and even by state institutions such as armies, intelligence…'.

This is better still, but neither it nor the State Department’s definition specifies that a key characteristic of terrorism is its indifference to the injury or death of innocent victims or even terrorism’s deliberate targeting of innocents. I believe that a proper definition for terrorism should include that.

Finally, here is the Patriot Act’s definition for a new crime dubbed “domestic terrorism:” “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws … [if such acts] … appear to be intended …to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”

Obviously, by this definition, any act of civil disobedience and any political protest could be readily categorized as “domestic terrorism” since they are all designed to influence the government’s policy. In fact, a particularly aggressive lobbyist’s actions could be defined as domestic terrorism according to this. The Patriot Act’s definition for “domestic terrorism” is so broad that it renders the meaning of terrorism null and void for all practical purposes and makes “terrorism” a catch-all label that can be used against almost any dissenters or advocates of policy that those in power do not appreciate. If truckers, for example, were to engage in a strike action or demonstration in which they used their trucks to block traffic in D.C. for an hour or more, this could arguably be seen as dangerous to human life and be treated as terrorism. Indeed, a group of demonstrators in Salt Lake City a few years ago were prosecuted as “domestic terrorists” for interfering with commercial businesses on the street where they were demonstrating.

Here is my definition of terrorism, which I believe is much less subjective and does not completely gut the meaning of terrorism altogether, as the Patriot Act does. I want to use it as a basis for my discussion of the intertwined relationship between anti-state terrorists and state terrorists:

Terrorism is the systematic use of force against persons or property with the intent to induce a general climate of fear in a population in order to produce a particular political objective. Such actions are carried out with either deliberate indifference to the fates of, or involve the conscious targeting of, noncombatant individuals.

I have included the explicit mention of innocent civilians in my definition because terrorism differs from political violence in that it is designed to induce fear by the injury or death of innocents. It is true that there are acts classified by some (e.g., the US government) as terrorist that do not result in injuries to civilians, but that classification is overly broad.

My definition has the virtue of bypassing the question of legitimacy since, as everyone knows, “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” By bypassing the question of legitimacy, it allows us to more impartially define whether something is terrorist or not. Now, of course, it isn’t really possible to offer a definition that everyone will accept. Some people will never accept a definition that includes the actions of their own government.

The intent of terrorists is an empirical question that must be settled through investigation. States in general will never admit that they act deliberately targeting civilians and other innocents.

Wars are in fact regularly depicted in bravado terms that overlook or drastically minimize any casualties. Witness, for example, Fox New’s Tony Snow’s cheerleading the initial quick toppling of Saddham Hussein on 4/13/03:

"Tommy Franks and the coalition forces have demonstrated the old axiom that boldness on the battlefield produces swift and relatively bloodless victory. The three-week swing through Iraq has utterly shattered skeptics' complaints."

The toppling of Hussein and the invasion were not relatively bloodless.

If innocents are hurt or killed or their property damaged and states are called to account for it happening, states’ explanations are likely to be that these acts were the product of rogue individuals, “collateral damage,” or the innocents hurt or killed were being used as “human shields” by the individual(s) the state was really targeting. States’ general response is that they had no intent to hurt or kill or damage innocents. It was accidental or unavoidable through no fault of theirs.

Of course in the course of war, even states that are being as careful as they can be and are not trying to deceive will sometimes inadvertently hurt innocents. The issue here is not individual acts then, it is one of state policy and that of the policy of anti-state terrorists.

Is the policy one that intends to do harm, or reflects utter indifference and criminal recklessness with respect to civilians? If so, then it’s terrorism.

Now to my main argument: As I hope I have shown in very brief discussion here, anti-state terrorism and state terrorism share, at a minimum, an indifference to civilians’ fates and in most instances they both deliberately target civilians. The object in both cases is to strike fear in the population in order to provoke a particular political response. States that use terrorism intend for it to cause their opponents and their supporters to give up their fight. Anti-state terrorists intend for the fear and disruption they cause for the population to provoke the state into granting certain political concessions. In most instances, anti-state terrorists want to cause a state to be toppled.

There is a very sharp distinction here that should be drawn between the actions, strategy and tactics of anti-state terrorists and those of revolutionaries. Revolutionaries aim to mobilize the populace and recruit them into the revolutionary army in some form, either directly as members of the revolutionary army, or indirectly (e.g., as a supporter or sympathizer, overt or covert). Because, in part, they have such a strategy, targeting civilians or being indifferent to their fates is anathema to revolutionaries. It would be counter-productive to their cause of a general mobilization of the population to kill indiscriminately.

Anti-state terrorists, by contrast, do not have patience for the kind of painstaking organizing that revolutionaries carry out. They also lack faith in the masses that they could be so mobilized. Instead, anti-state terrorists seek to provoke a crisis (the fact that they don’t usually succeed in this doesn’t alter the fact that this is what they would like). They see themselves as the lone heroes and the masses are seen as spectators for the terrorists’ heroic actions. In the case of groups like the Red Army Fraction in Germany or the Symbionese Liberation Army in the US they saw their actions as leading to the state clamping down on the civilian population so heavy-handedly that it would reveal to the benighted masses the true fascist face of capitalist rule. This would then somehow and somewhat magically ignite revolutionary consciousness among the people. These groups thus believed that the ordinary workings of the capitalist system were insufficient to produce the basis for incipient class-consciousness. The terrorists needed to help things along.

“Terrorist strategy is born out of a dangerous combination of desperation and grandiosity. In their minds, terrorists face an ultimate foe—an unbeatable foreign occupier, the forces of international capitalism, the earthly manifestation of evil. According to this line of thinking, only the terrorists now stand against this enemy; other groups, following ‘normal’ means, have already failed.” Tom Grant, Arms and Influence.

The actions of groups like Hamas in Palestine are born out of the PLO’s failure to actually wage a revolutionary struggle against occupation. They are characterized by a sense of utter desperation and a sense of hopelessness combined with rage.

Part Two: An Identity of Opposites

Both anti-state terrorism and state terrorism share a fundamentally identical attitude towards the people – people are dupes and they are expendable. They are best moved through the generous application of fear. Anti-state and state terrorism both evidence contempt and cynicism towards the people.

Political rule requires two elements: persuasion and coercion. As Weber put it, political power consists of the ability to get your way even against resistance. How do you get people to do something they don’t want to do? What do you do if all of your means of persuasion fail? You use coercion.

If coercion does not avail and resistance proves fierce, then states may resort to terror. State coercion is unpleasant or even nasty and brutal, but state terrorism aims to not merely force you to do something, but to terrify you into complying. The state wastes no effort when using terror to restrict its victims to limited and specific targets. State terror is by nature designed to be indiscriminate. Virtually the entire population is supposed to be terrified. It derives much of its power in fact from being indiscriminate. You are supposed to be so fearful that you will co-operate because you could very easily be the next victim.

A state that uses terror - as in the examples that follow – reveals itself to be in a particularly precarious state. It’s precarious because it must resort to means exceeding those that states normally employ in order to carry out their policies and/or in order to stay in power. The Nazis ruled through terror. The US military in Abu Ghraib and at GITMO and in their assault on Fallujah and Hilla where they have specifically suspended international rules of war by aiming phosphorous missiles at people and shooting at anyone who moves, rule through terror. In the case of Hilla, where they used cluster bombs on civilian areas, the object was to quickly crush any resistance to their drive to Baghdad because they did not think that American public opinion would tolerate a protracted war campaign. In the case of the siege of Fallujah, the point was to punish the people of Fallujah for their support of the insurgents. In spite of what the Bush Administration continues to claim, their invasion and especially their ongoing occupation of Iraq are very unpopular, both in Iraq and in the US.

Terror can work for a time. Anti-state terrorism almost always fails – they don’t have power after all, and they aren’t pursuing means that are designed to build broad support. State terrorism, on the other hand, sometimes works, for a time. Ultimately, it fails miserably because people in the long run cannot effectively be ruled by fear. There simply aren’t enough gendarmes to go around to force people to do what the state wants if much of the populace thinks that the state is illegitimate.

Part III

The Dangerous Incompetence of the Bush/Cheney Cabal and the Grave Dangers That They Pose.

It’s no secret that the Bush administration would not be in power today if 9/11 had not happened. (The 2004 GOP national convention would have lasted about 1/3 as long as it did and the speeches in particular would have been about 30 seconds long if they had not been able to invoke the specter of 9/11 over and over and over again.) As it is, they were actually outvoted both in 2000 and in 2004 and only took office through fraud. But they would have gone down to defeat by a record, or near record, level were they unable to convince many Americans that terrorism from al-Qaeda and the like was the most important political fact of our times. They certainly could never have gotten away with invading Iraq and blatantly violating international law without making the phony claim that Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda and 9/11.

The Patriot Act, under a different name, was something they tried to get through Congress before 9/11 - unsuccessfully. Awful as they are, the policies of the Bush administration are not unique. They are actually a continuation at a higher level of policies begun under Reagan and carried forward with certain different attributes by Clinton. In brief, they were carried out less aggressively under Clinton, but they are fundamentally the same. These policies are called neoliberalism (sometimes aka free market fundamentalism) and they are the political expression of globalization. That is, they are the political policies that advance globalization: deregulation, privatization, re-engineering, deindustrialization, and downsizing. Globalization renders the vast majority of the population increasingly insecure, especially economically, but also politically. Job security, for example, is increasingly jettisoned under neoliberalism and social safety nets have been getting shredded.

Growing reliance on coercion is also part and parcel of this picture. They need a rationale to justify this growing use of force. The specter of terrorism, while not the only rationale, provides the most effective. Invoking 9/11 has so far worked rather well in shutting people up. As Herman Goring put it: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders ... tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.” The 1933 Reichstag Fire was the Nazi’s equivalent to our 9/11. Blamed on the communists, the Nazis (and Goring in particular) set the fire themselves, and used the arson of the German Parliament’s building as an excuse to suspend the German Constitution and give them emergency powers.

While 9/11 and terrorism are the rationale for the increasing use of force and of surveillance, the underlying, key reasons for this are a result of two things: 1) the sharply diminishing role of positive, informal and formal forms of social control such as jobs at living wages, and 2) their dreams of empire expansion which will require a much greater degree of brutal and direct force, including torture. Both of these factors mean that they are much more vulnerable to dissent and open debate about their policies since their policies are directly contrary to the vast majority of people’s interests and welfare, here and in the world. Thus, they are much more focused on repression of the population, not terrorism. This is the central reason why they have been tightening the screws on the people. Rather than preventing future terrorist attacks, these steps actually invite more terrorism, of both kinds. They actually benefit from terrorist attacks.

Introducing an incipient police state also creates potentially very severe fissures and cracks since it involves breaching long-standing civil liberties and fundamental beliefs in American governance. These include core matters such as habeas corpus and the right not to be spied upon.


cheshirekatz said...

Bravo! A most excellent essay. You summed up in a scholarly and objective fashion how the word terrorism is being used, misused and totally redefined by the government. Too few Americans understand what is going on in our country. If they did, they would be truly afraid. We are indeed being terrorized but by our own government. Americans need to start thinking clearly and not accepting everything they hear on the news or read in the papers.


cheshirekatz said...

I believe that many people deep down are frightened and that is
why they react with anger. Or re-create events to fit in with what
they WANT to believe. It is pulling apart the fabric of our society. I
hope you keep writing and giving talks and expanding your blog. People
like you in the sciences and academics are our hope to get the truth
out. I plan to buy your book Impeach the President and put a link to it in
my blog. I will be loaning it out a great deal! There seems to be a
growing underground grassroots movement beginning. I have talked to
many people who know there is something wrong but cannot express it.<<