We begin with a simple grammatical problem, which lies at the heart of the political lie that there could ever be a ‘war on terror.’ Terror is an emotive response; terrorism is therefore merely the art of inspiring terror. (Technically, one could argue that Boris Karloff was a more skillful ‘terrorist,’ in his films, than, say, Osama Bin Laden.)
But, very well, let us translate our understanding of the term into its political usage. Is ‘terrorism’ a political theory? Of what? Just by itself, it offers no economics, no social program, no long range goals to work toward. It’s not a political theory.
Yet we know that terrorism involves violence, according to current usage. And it appears to be violence directed toward civilians within a given locality. What sort of locality? Usually a city. Was the British firebombing of Dresden an act of terrorism? But in that instance a declared war was in progress. It generated terror, but its primary purpose was ‘destruction of the enemy.’ Not the most noble of goals, but a clearly military tactic in a broader military strategy of defeating Germany at the time.
But terrorism does not partake of such broader strategies, and it is unclear that it can be an effective military tactic.
It would appear that ‘terrorism,’ as currently used, refers to acts of violence against civilians in a locality the parameters of which are undefined. However, it is not an act of war, because theories of war take into account the destruction of ‘enemy’ civilians (all too casually, alas), and the social psychological effects thereof (‘collateral damage’) without reference to terror or terrorism. One way we can see this is that guerrilla tactics are similar to terrorist activities, but are known simply as ‘guerrilla tactics;’ labeling them ‘terrorism’ doesn’t add anything new to the theory of modern guerrilla war, which has been well thought through since its invention during the American Revolution.
Very well, it is not a military theory, nor is it a political theory. Yet there’s no denying that terrorism has something to do with paramilitary-like violence, and something to do with violence – but what?
Since there’s no denying that terrorist activities form a practice, that they partake of some military idea (hence the organized violence involved, despite lack of any discernible military strategy), and since they are said by their own advocates as involving political ideas, it should follow that they likely conform to some notion of political or military tactics. But we have already seen that military tactics involving short term ground combat by irregulars within indefinite localities can best be seen as guerrilla tactics, the military theory of which are roughly but largely well understood. Besides, however terrorists like to think of themselves, they are not soldiers of any kind, not even irregulars, since they really evidence neither the will to strive for completion of potentially long term combat against similarly armed forces, nor the discipline to accomplish this. Yet such a goal and such a discipline is required of the very being of any soldier.
Really, their only interest is in the social-psychological responses their acts of violence call forth from a given population. So that would put their activities within the realm of the political suasion. But we have seen that ‘terrorism’ does not refer to any political theory. Can it be considered a political strategy? How so? This would read something like: Imagine the American terrorist of the 1850s, John Brown, saying something like: “In order to achieve the end of slavery, we will destroy a small town in Kansas, chop off some heads in Missouri, and then engage a firefight at the National Armory.” Would this have made any sense? Even to John Brown? I suggest not. Actually Brown’s strategy is fairly clear – if he could demonstrate the violence of which Abolitionists were capable, he might persuade other Abolitionists that a revolution over the issue of slavery was feasible, and thus spark a civil war; or so frighten (terrorize) adherents of slavery’s legitimacy, to the extent of bringing about reformation from them.
Well, but this proved a very poor strategy. Brown’s mission failed. He has passed into song and legend, but as little more than a symbol. Nat Turner’s revolt accomplished just as much, and was really more cogent to the issues since it was undertaken by the slaves themselves.
In fact acts of terrorism – on both sides of the slavery question – accomplished little. The Civil War was sparked elsewhere and by other means, largely through the established mechanisms of electoral politics, their breakdown, and the resulting responses and counter-responses, in the southern state governments and in Washington. That is because war requires the organization of collective violence, not mere lashing out or small group thuggery.
However, consider the two goals John Brown appears to have had in mind: Sparking revolution, or frightening political opponents into submission. These are the strategic political goals of his activity. Yet his tactics clearly failed to achieve these goals. In fact, they could not have achieved these goals, because the tactics were local and unsustainable, and incommensurate with the project – they were too small, too momentary, too inchoate to form into a real strategy to effect such goals.
So terrorism cannot be a political strategy, it can only be a political tactic, as one such among other tactics, directed toward a strategic political goal. Insofar as we can consider it political at all, that’s as much as can be given it – it is a tactic. As such, those considering deploying it to help achieve any strategic political goal, need to ask themselves the obvious question – can it successfully move toward the desired goals at all? Does it work?
In the instance of John Brown, we saw that it was wholly unsuccessful. Not only were his own strategic goals unmet, they weren’t even approached. History was decided elsewhere, by other means. And indeed, when one gathers the history of terrorism over the past 200 years, that proves to be true in general. Terrorism, as a political tactic, is a failure. There is not a single instant when an act of terror, as a political tactic, has effected, or even contributed to, in any great measure, its express or implied political goal. The problem is that the social-psychological effects it is intended to trigger, always trend in the opposite direction from that desired.
Why might this be? I suggest it is precisely because a terrorist act is clearly recognizable as not a military tactic. This means that there is no threat of overwhelming force behind it. There is no organization or discipline, no sense of direction to it, no sense that it is moving forward in a continuing armed conflict to accomplish military or even political goals. It cannot make its argument, it can only bully, torture, and kill. There is no side to join, and surrender is useless. There is no resolution offered, and its conditions for success lack any detail or coherence. Terrorism is not an activity of war. It can never claim victory – there is nothing to be won. Thus the deployment of terrorism, rather than clarifying any issues and moving any political struggle forward, merely clouds the political with responses of fear and anger.
As a political tactic, terrorism stands revealed as a dismal failure. So why do so many seem tempted to participate in it, throwing away precious human lives – oft including their own – in futile gestures accomplishing little or nothing of what they say they want to get done?
‘Terrorism’ labels a set of activities which its agents believe constitute a political tactic, but which are wholly ineffective as such, or actually effect the reverse of the goals professed by the terrorists themselves. Thus, to determine its real appeal, one must set the politics aside and consider the psychology of those to whom it appeals. Its true efficacy is strictly limited to perceived psychological benefits to the terrorist. It involves acts of small-scale, local violence that allows the persons committing the acts to feel as though they are contributing to some political strategy in order to bring about a larger political goal – thereby enhancing their sense of personal power, of self-esteem, of belonging to some ‘greater good.’ However, since terrorism is objectively a failure at actually accomplishing any of that, these perceived benefits are purely delusions. Therefore, engaging in terrorist activities can only be a symptom of some socio-pathology or some other, similar psychological dysfunction.
In America, because of the increasing incidence of seemingly random public shooting events, on the one hand, and increasing tensions related to religiously motivated violence, many approach any egregious act of public violence with the question, ‘Is this terrorism, or is this simply the act of some psychopaths?” The answer, I’m suggesting, is that it is most likely both. Terrorism is a psychopathology, and we should consider its historic meaning in this light.