What Is Terrorism?

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does naivete segue into intellectual dishonesty? The current "War
on Terrorism" — or is it officially "World War IV"
as some of the neoconservative war lovers insist? – is providing
an opportunity to examine this question.

No war could ever be conducted without the corruption of language,
it being the role of an intelligent mind to discern the processes
by which political systems are able to embroil mankind in their
butcherous conflicts. If the leaders of Slobovia wish to gain the
sanction of their citizenry for a war against Lower Ruritania, it
is incumbent upon them to create a plausible rationale for doing
so. In their day-to-day lives, most people are content to look upon
others with a benign disposition, giving to one another the benefit
of a doubt in the case of marginal disputes, and certainly disinclined
to pick up a deadly weapon and attack their neighbors. A society
steeped in such sentiments tends to be a peaceful and productive
one, generating an inertia against the forces of warfare.

Because "war is the health of the state," political systems
have an incentive to manufacture conflicts if they are to rally
their citizenries around their authority. Most men and women may
be peaceable by nature but, as history shows, can also be easily
gulled into giving up their lives and other resources to participate
in the most insanely destructive of practices. Because most of us
operate on low-wattage levels of conscious energy, we tend to fall
into the state-orchestrated herd whenever political leaders are
able to mobilize our fears of others with believable threats.

From our so-called "primitive" ancestors to what we like
to think of as our "sophisticated" cultures, we have followed
the same violent scripts, with only a change in the names of the
actors to distinguish one performance from another. Ancient tribal
groups organized into war parties in order to protect their livestock
from the "Nine Bows" who lived across the river. Medieval
Christian states fought the bloody "Crusades" to rescue
Jerusalem from the infidels. World War II was fought to protect
America from that generation's "Axis" power: "maniacs"
who wanted to "take over the world." When that war ended,
the Cold War was immediately invented, to protect the "free
world" from the menace of an "international communist

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the American nation-state
needed a new threat, with which to maintain in the minds
of Americans the sense of fear, obedience, and sacrifice upon which
all state power depends. You will recall the various candidates
offered up for our consumption: "pornographers," "child
abductors," "Satanic cults," and "drug dealers,"
provided some limited appeal as plausible threats, but were each
found insufficient to sustain the kind of temporal, psychic, and
material commitments necessary to sustain a powerful state apparatus.

As long as American economic activity was being conducted on a largely
national basis, corporate-state interests were content to
use the American state to create political structures useful to
their ends. But with the emergence of multinational transactions,
these same economic interests now endeavor to extend such political
domination to the international arena. For the United States
— as a political system — to extend its authority on a worldwide
basis, it requires a global threat, one of such proportions
as will mesmerize billions of people to get into line.

One can see, at once, that pornographers and Satanists are woefully
inadequate to the purposes of an international state, an empire.
It would be too much like burning down your house to get rid of
termites. Something of a more pervasive, yet ambiguous, bogeyman
needed to be called forth from central casting. Hitler is dead —
even though President Bush I tried to reincarnate him in the form
of Saddam Hussein — and, given its track record, there is little
likelihood that communism will ever generate much enthusiasm outside
the Ivy League.

A new Frankenstein monster — fashioned out of the entropic
remains of previous and current wars conducted and/or supported
by the American empire — was brought to life in the form of "international
terrorism." But how does one identify this new
enemy? When the foe was tribal or national in nature, this was a
fairly straightforward task. But "terrorism" is much more
of an abstraction, a somewhat amorphous specter that makes the practicing
"terrorist" all the more mysterious and sinister a threat.
For an abstract foe, one must resort to a more abstract definition.

Congress came to the rescue of the war machine in 8 USCA Sect.1182,
by defining "terrorist activity," in part, as "any
activity which is unlawful under the laws of the place where
it is committed (or which, if committed in the United States, would
be unlawful under the laws of the United States or any State)
and which involves any of the following: . . . (IV) An assassination.
(V) The use of any — (a) biological agent, chemical agent, or nuclear
weapon or device, or (b) explosive or firearm (other than for mere
personal monetary gain), with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly,
the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage
to property. (VI) A threat, attempt, or conspiracy to do any of
the foregoing" [emphasis added].

Did you notice the trick played upon your mind by Congress? Reread
the portion of the statute I italicized and you will see that it
carefully excludes those activities that the United States or other
governments consider lawful (i.e., its own otherwise "terrorist"
activities)! In other words, if any of the prohibited acts are considered
lawful by the United States, they do not qualify as "terrorist
activity." If Lower Ruritania or the United States consider
airline hijacking or hostage-taking to be unlawful, then such become
"terrorist" acts. Thus, if a private group had
attacked and burned the Branch Davidian residence at Waco, that
would have been an "unlawful," hence "terrorist,"
act. But when the United States government does so, this is defined
as "law enforcement."

Try reading the above statutory language without the italicized
portion, and see if the use of a "nuclear weapon" (Hiroshima,
Nagasaki), or an "explosive or firearm" (warfare generally)
"with intent to endanger . . . the safety of one or more individuals
or to cause substantial damage to property" would not qualify
as "terrorist activity." And what of government research
into "biological agents,[and] chemical agents," or the
Bush Administration's announced plans to develop contingency plans
for the use of "nuclear weapons" upon a list of identified
nations: would these acts not qualify as "conspiracies"
to engage in "terrorist activity?"

One of the recurrent themes in my writings is that so much of our
life is wrapped up in abstractions, in dealing with the world
in terms of words and other symbols, rather than with their underlying
reality. It is this practice that underlies our social conflicts,
the effects of which can be minimized only by our becoming
constantly aware of the implications of such behavior. We can see
how the practice plays itself out in the above statute: the state
will simply define itself out of a problem!

There is nothing new in any of this: the U.S. government was able
to despoil Indian tribes and uphold the practice of slavery by defining
Indians and blacks out of the category of "persons" protected
by the U.S. Constitution. The legalization of abortions is based
on the same practice: define the fetus out of the category of "persons,"
and redefine it as the "property" of the mother, the very
reasoning the court used in Dred Scott to uphold slavery.
In defining itself out of a statute on "terrorist activity,"
the federal government is engaging in the same practice.

For the sake of our own intellectual integrity, we ought to resist
allowing our own thinking to be corrupted in such ways. The state – and its Ministry of Information (i.e., the media) — endeavor to
get us to rationalize such self-serving, contradictory distinctions.
Thus, if the Israeli government uses tanks to destroy Palestinian
buildings, it is engaged in "police action," but if the
Palestinians use bombs to attack Jewish targets, they are engaged
in "terrorism." Likewise, when American planes bomb cities
it is called "peacekeeping," but when the "enemy"
retaliates, it is called "terrorism." Our killing
of innocent civilians is referred to as "collateral damage,"
while their killings are labeled "atrocities."

On September 12th, while discussing these contradictory
definitions of reality with others, one man tried to generate a
meaningful distinction by saying: "but when we do these
things, we at least have the courtesy of dropping bombs from
airplanes." Bombing others is an act of courtesy? How,
then, does one define rudeness?

In discussing matters of this sort, I am often accused of "playing
mind games" by those who find such charge a convenient way
of avoiding the highly energized effort one must always undertake
in living a self-responsible life of integrity. But who is toying
with your mind: those who engage in deceitful practices in order
to manipulate your thinking, or those who expose such behavior?
Other than energizing our own minds, how else are we to put an end
to our participation in the deadly games that result from our acceptance
of the playground logic "my side u2018good,' your side u2018bad'?"

If it is our desire to end terrorism, we must do so generically,
not in the partial and fraudulent manner contemplated by President
Bush. We must confront the truth that most of us fear to acknowledge,
namely, that every state system, in wartime, is playing the identical
game; that there are no "good guys" and "bad
guys" in any war, however much we enjoy deluding ourselves
to the contrary. There are no "noble" or "just"
wars when the lives of millions of innocent men, women, and children
are consumed in the slaughter.

I have long been in favor of ending terrorism in the world, long
before it became fashionable to war against only certain factions
of it. But let us be more inclusive as to its sources. Let us put
an end to terrorism, not with the use of bombs, tanks, nuclear
weapons, and secret military trials, but by withdrawing our support
from that which makes terrorism not only possible, but necessary:
political systems. Let us expand the front lines to include
not simply the terrorist practices disapproved of by states,
but the far more destructive, deadly, and dehumanizing practices
of statism itself.

You may enlist your mind and spirit at any time.

16, 2002

Shaffer [send
him e-mail
] teaches at the Southwestern University School
of Law.

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