• 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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