What Is Terrorism?

When 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 conspiracy."

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.