I think it would be fair to say it’s extremely difficult to turn on a major international news network without being bombarded with messages about terrorism. If it’s not news about a suicide bombing in Fallujah or Kandahar, then it’s an embassy being placed on high alert in Jakarta, a Special Operations raid in Bradford, or some new airport screening measure designed to keep us safe. It seems that everywhere we set out foot (especially those of us whose feet set us in some of the world’s more colourful locales), we’re facing imminent annihilation at the twitchy trigger-finger of some suicidal anarcho-islamo-socio-fascist with enough RDX to level a city block in his (and increasingly, her) back pocket.
I don’t really want to talk much more about that. Yes, there is a threat from terrorism. Yes, terrorism has provided the last ten years specifically, and fifty years generally, with some of its more memorably infamous moments as is its wont (while we have forgotten some of the far more infamous but less memorable ones). I don’t for one moment want to downplay the suffering that people directly affected by terror attacks have experienced, or the fear that those who live in places where ‘terror tactics’ are routinely engaged experience.
What I want to talk about is the threat posed by the notion of terrorism, and specifically, its misapplication.
Terrorism, in its most basic form, is one of the oldest tactics of warfare known to man. It is the process by which fear is spread across a population through the use of a particularly spectacular or exemplary act of violence. The idea of killing a few to put fear in many is an ancient philosophy of battle. For the attacker, it’s perhaps the most cost-effective way to win a conflict: Risk a small number your own soldiers to kill a small number of the enemy’s in such a way that a fear is put into the rest of the army, which then gives you the opportunity to defeat them, militarily or ideologically. It has been used in countless forms over the millenia, in simple forms as hanging the remains of vanquished foes from city walls or displaying the quartered bodies of renegades in public squares to warn the rest, as well as in more elaborate battles. One of the most infamous uses of ‘terror’ as a tactic in warfare was deployed with brutal if lavish efficacy by Vlad Tepes (known better as The Impaler and Dracula- son of the dragon/devil), who stuck more than twenty-thousand war prisoners on sharpened spikes at the frontier of his lands in what was to become Romania, and turned back an Ottoman army five times the size of his own, whose Sultan looked on the carnage with dismay and mused that a man who could do such a thing must be horrifically powerful.
The notion of ‘terrorism’ has always been a grey one, and very much defined by which side of the fence you are on. Bands of saboteurs during the American Civil War, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, carried out surprise attacks under false colours, blew up installations, and carried out murders of noncombatants, including women and children. During the Second World War, the French Resistance carried out the murder of countless German officers behind their own lines, and many of their own countryfolk as well, and had Germany won to write the history books they would doubtless be recorded as a gang of violent brigands aiming at the instability of the glorious Third Kingdom, and not the heroes they are remembered as today. Long the tactic of the under-represented, the cliche blurts, “A terrorist is a man with a bomb but not an airforce”.
In the modern era, of course, terrorism has been given a new face and a new lease on life by global media. The impact of a 1960s airliner erupting into a ball of fire in front of rolling TV cameras could be shared in every living-room in the West in glorious technicolour, and the era of the spectacular bombing was born. This culminated in possibly the most significant media event ever staged, Al Qaeda’s bombing of the Twin Towers in Manhattan, broadcast live to almost every television set Europe, America and countless other nations around the largely-horrified world. Do I mean to be flippant about that atrocious attack? I absolutely do not. But there’s little doubt that the emotional and psychological impact of September 11 2001 had would have been greatly reduced had the world read about the event the following day on the front page of the Guardian or the Wall Street Journal instead of watching it unfold detail by terrible detail from the violated privacy of their homes and offices.
Rationally, of course, terrorism poses a minute threat to most of us, with the exception of a [tragically still quite large] number of people living in some very specific conflict zones. Perhaps the only fear most of us hold that is more irrational than the fear of being directly involved in a suicide bombing would be our fear of being eaten by a shark while swimming in the sea- something that happens to between ten and twenty of us per year out of the two or three billion humans who take to the waves annually. But fear has never been rational, which is what makes terror as a weapon of war so effective.
Terrorism is a powerful concept. Because it relates to one of the most basic emotions of the human psyche- fear- it has the potential to have a real grip on people. To that end it is used with great effect by the media (spend twenty minutes watching Fox News and see how many times the stories presented try to appeal to your sense of safety or threat), in the entertainment industry (how well thrillers and horror movies perform to their dedicated audiences), and by politicians (how easily certain reforms that affected peoples’ freedoms have been pushed through in a number of western countries recently). But the real threat posed by the notion of terrorism is not the curbing of our personal liberties in Western countries. The threat is the power it has to polarize, to demonize, and to rob us of dialogue.
I am working in a country at war with itself. On the one hand is the government. On the other, a rebel group wanting to establish a national identity. It is an old conflict, but it has recently been reinvented with new language. The language of terror. In the government’s propaganda, the opposition have become terrorists. They are not rebels. They are not an ethnic minority fighting for rights or a homeland. Their soldiers are simply the spreaders of terror and fear. This makes them criminals. It makes them pariahs in the eyes of the watching world. It makes them the witches of the modern era, worth only to be hunted, snared, and publically burned at the stake.
The rebels in question have brought this on through their own actions. By using terror tactics, such as suicide bombings, assassinations, and the killing of civilians unsympathetic to their cause, they have shoveled international condemnation in great steaming piles onto themselves and are quite rightly labeled as a terrorist group by international organizations and governments. But here is where the line between a group of people using terror tactics and the label ‘terrorist’ needs to be walked carefully. We need, however difficult and at times irrational it may appear to be, to differentiate between the act and the actor.
Using the label ‘terrorist’, the government is now able to do as it pleases. It demonizes the ‘terrorists’ in the eyes of the public, whose support the government so desperately needs. It turns them from rebels who are the armed wing representing a people with a very distinct and articulate cause, to a soulless morasse bent on sowing nothing but fear and destruction on an innocent population. The language is that of hyperbole. It takes a portion of the truth and makes it the central discourse. The effect of this is, of course, that any notion of dialogue, of a measured response, or of seeking a peaceful resolution, can be thrown out of the window. You don’t negotiate with terrorists. You track them down, you incarcerate them, and if necessary, you kill them all.
And they are.
Today this theme is repeated elsewhere. The demonization of Palestinian fighters as terrorists in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a tragic example. Have the Palestinians helped their cause by carrying out despicable bombings in public areas of Israel? Of course not- they have given Israel every excuse it needs to slap them with the ‘terrorist’ label- and in doing so are subsequently robbed of any legitimacy in the eyes of a watching world, when in fact their grievance- an unjust displacement from their homes and villages into oppressive and offensive camp-cities- is very much a legitimate one. When Israel carries out targeted killings and detonates high explosives in residential areas, incidentally killing and maiming women and children, the vocabulary of terror identifies it as defending its national security against a clear and present danger, never acknowledging that the line that divides its actions from those of the people it targets is purely rhetorical.
It has been refreshing at least that over the last couple of years, there has been a shift away from the language of terror in certain quarters of the western media. In Afghanistan, the Taleban are refered to by name- whether or not they happen to be on an official list of terrorist organizations. The Iraqis who carry out roadside bombings against military convoys are called insurgents, their explosives refered to as IEDs, and not simply as terrorist bombs.
Again, I don’t want to take away from the horror that some of these groups inflict. For the members of a convoy caught in a deadly ambush, the pain, the fear, and the long-term impact of what they go through is real and tragic. They experience terror, for certain. Is it fair though to label the perpetrators terrorists? In the eyes of these fighters, many of whom [however rightly or wrongly] believe their homeland has been invaded, they are driving out a hostile force. The difference between the improvised explosives of Fallujah, Tikrit and Route Irish, and the Claymore mines strung up along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to ensnare Viet Cong supply caravans in the early 1970s, is that the latter are made in a US factory assembly-line, and the former in a dusty basement in Sadr City. Anything else is academic.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want to lend legitimacy to acts of pure evil or to criminals geniunely bent on destruction for their own financial or political gain. Am I saying there’s not a place for the use of the word ‘terrorist’? I am not. The man who rides his bicycle into a crowd of children to whom candy is being distributed and blows himself up is among the most filthy creatures that has ever lived on this earth. Worse than him is the man who devised the plan in the first place and sent him on his way with a pat on the back (though I would seek to understand their respective motivations in depth to try and ensure that others were not motivated to do the same again). Am I suggesting, by the same argument, that blowing up US soldiers with a cell-phone-detonated artillery shell hidden inside the roadside carcass of a dog is somehow acceptable because we call them insurgents rather than terrorists? Don’t be ridiculous. I have seen with my own eyes many different guises of war over the last several years, and I despise every one of them with a passion. But by stepping out of the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ I try to recognize that the terror of a truck-bomb driven into a police-station is no greater or less for the people whose limbs are shredded than the terror experienced by a mis-aimed BLU-109 that devastates a village wedding outside Jalalabad. The moral difference, you can argue, is intent, but I assure you, that moral difference means nothing to the people who bury their loved ones in closed caskets.
‘Terrorism’ alienates, and it polarizes. By appealing to our simplest, most powerful emotions- fear, survival, the fight-or-flight reflex- it produces strong, uncompromising and very black-and-white emotional responses among those who aren’t paying attention to them. It evokes in our minds the most terrible acts that people are capable of, and rightly-so- but only when used in the correct context. It is essential that we take the time to step back from our own propaganda and look to see whether, on at least one level, past all the hype and hatred, there might be some legitimate grievance to be healed, some common ground from which to start from. Behind the labels there are always real people, however misguided, ignorant, misrepresented and in some cases, genuinely evil.
I look again at the context I am working in right now and I see how the state-governed media spews hatred (and I mean a hatred that makes the post-9/11 media look generous and accepting by comparison) and how it has divided a nation. How everyday-people on the streets here are quite happy with the notion that many unarmed civilians may lose their lives in a short while in the name of the government’s mission to eradicate terror. This is a vocabulary that I can see being taken to other places, and one which I have seen in other, paler forms elsewhere. It scares me, because it is uncompromising, and as it has here, it dehumanises and brings an end to dialogue. It scares me, because it is a powerful weapon that in the long-run stands to be far more destructive than the tactics it chooses to describe. And it scares me, because people don’t stop to think about what it means. When we voluntarily let go of the will or ability to step outside ourselves and seek to understand our adversary’s platform, but reduce him to the sum of his deeds, then we loose the ability to show mercy, to share grace, and to forgive. And a society without mercy, without grace and without forgiveness is not one I want to be a part of.