OK, a belated final wrapup and then we’ll (in geological time) work into some constructive suggestions.
I’m proposing a theory that has three parts, each of which has some basis which we should be able to discuss or test.
First, that there is a form of political violence which I will label “terrorism”, which is by its nature different from guerilla warfare and mass murder, which are its neighbors on the continuum of violence.
The defining features of terrorism are: 1) attacks on opposing civilians and military with the sole intent of demoralizing them, and the wider media audience who views the attacks and their consequences, and with little or no thought to traditional military effectiveness (i.e. degrading the capability of the enemy to fight you); 2) an ideological base in the self-perceived powerlessness of the attacking side; 3) reliance on the restraint and civility of the opposing force to allow terrorist operatives to stay concealed in a civilian population relatively free from reprisal.

Next that while terrorism has roots in traditional political conflicts, its nature as a different method of conflict has implications for the sponsoring political entity, as well as those targeted. There is something about terrorism as a tactic that both attracts and entraps the participants. In other words, there is something about terrorism which redefines the participants and makes it hard for them to move out of committing terrorist acts and into constructive military and political activity.
Much like the legendary pirates who committed cannibalism because, having eaten human flesh, they could not return to civil life, it seems that the participants in terrorism do not have a great track record at abandoning terror and moving to more traditional military and political activities. This traps the terrorists and their sponsors, and makes it more difficult for them to step across the line to which I will call “civic” politics. Not that it isn’t impossible, as recent developments in Ulster and Sri Lanka suggest.

Finally, that the roots of terrorism, or rather the roots of the political decision to assume terrorism as a tactic, have to do as much with the desire to have an impact on people’s awareness as on their behavior. When I accuse the Palestinians of adopting tactics aimed at dramatic TV coverage as much as at damaging the Israelis, I’m pointing out that in terrorism the desire to psychologically defeat the opponent may outweigh the desire to defeat them in practical terms.
Now what is unique about terrorism is that it stands alone as a kind of “media war” in which the rhetoric and media images matter more than the actual balance of power “on the ground”. Terrorists almost never attack targets that would have substantive impact; they attack airport waiting areas, and not the radar or air-traffic control facilities that would shut down the airport. Even when they do attempt attacks against infrastructure (the Pi Glilot refinery), one wonders if it was for the effect on fuel supplies of the size of the explosion that mattered.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Commenter Ziska writes:

I think that Osama’s methods are rational. He wanted to provoke the United States, destabilize the Middle east and especially Saudi Arabia, and rouse his sympathizers. (I don’t think that his attack on the WTC was symbolic in a futile sense. The symbolism was appealing to the people he was trying to rouse; and in fact the WTC is very substantially meaningful, since it was a communication and control center and what he was fighting against was an international order dominated by the US from places like the WTC, rather than a flesh and blood nation.)

First, she acknowledges the symbolic, as opposed to practical import of the action…although as a ‘symbolic’ attack on the U.S., I’d suggest that the White House, U.S. Capitol, or even the Statue of Liberty would have been of greater impact…then she suggests that it is a ‘communication and control center’; no, it’s an office building. MAE-WEST, which is in an office building here in Los Angeles, is a communications and control center, and it’s destruction would have had a far greater impact on our ability to actually function than an attack on the WTC. What the WTC was is a symbol of Western economic power and (and to skirt the Freudian) potency. Again, I keep coming back to the ineffectiveness of the attacks, both on 9/11 and overall in Israel (this is not to demean the real tragedy that both represent) to suggest that the attackers are not using the same calculus as us to measure success and failure, and that their motivations are not what they appear to us to be…or possibly what they themselves articulate.
I obviously have not yet gotten the Baudrillard book noted by Junius below, but I’ll repeat the publisher’s quote, because it is so damn telling:

Continuing an analysis developed over many years, Baudrillard sees the power of the terrorists as lying in the symbolism of this slaughter. Not merely the reality of death, but a sacrificial death that challenges the whole system. Where the past revolutionary sought to conduct a struggle of real forces in the context of ideology and politics, the new terrorist mounts a powerful symbolic challenge, which, when combined with high-tech resources, constitutes an unprecedented assault on an over-sophisticated, vulnerable West.

and add to it a quote from V.S. Naipul (thanks to Roublen Vessau):

I don’t think it was because of American foreign policy. There is a passage in one of the Conrad short stories of the East Indies where the savage finds himself with his hands bare in the world, and he lets out a howl of anger. I think that, in its essence, is what is happening. The world is getting more and more out of reach of simple people who have only religion. And the more they depend on religion, which of course solves nothing, the more the world gets out of reach.

This suggests to me that it is not any one issue that triggers terrorism (although Ziska is right that it has centered on ‘national liberation’, but typically in concert with more traditional military and guerilla tactics), but infinitely many. And that the problem with this is that whatever we concede, there will be another group, another faction…if not the PLO, than Hamas, if not Hamas, than Fatah, if not Fatah, than Al-Aqusa Martyr’s Brigade, ad infinitum…who will find issues, because I am arguing that the real issue is modernity.
There are internal and external critiques of Western modernity. The internal critiques have philosophical roots going clearly back to the 19th century, and which I will argue, have been picked up by many making the external critiques, until there is a roughly common philosophical and political ‘umbrella’ under which both operate.
And one of the concerns I will raise is that given that there are folks internal to the West who share these views, what is the barrier to more widespread terrorism?
We are seeing it now, in a loose way…in the armored-car robberies of the Aryan groups, mirroring the deadly armored-car robberies intended to finance the Weather Underground in the 70’s; in the acts of animal liberationists, anti-abortionists, of Earth First! and Columbine.
The cost of defending ourselves, in the long run, will bankrupt us physically, psychically, and morally. So we have to defeat this. And by virtue of its nature, terrorist violence can (and must) be held at bay, but within the limits of modern Western tolerance, cannot be defeated by violence alone. We have to find a way to stop growing the people who do it.
And so yes, I’ll suggest that we have a War On Bad Philosophy, and that the places to look are the churches, mosques, temples, and lecture halls … at the people who need to create and then spread some philosophical antibodies.
In the next few days, I’ll make some concrete short-term and longer term suggestions.
Originally published August 29, 2002.


  1. Date: 08/31/2002 00:00:00 AM
    The first step to really defending ourselves is to encourage more citizens to be prepared to defend themselves. E.g., concealed carry – and an end to the government policies encouraging civilians to let the “bad guys” do whatever they want until the proper authorities arrive. As a result of those policies, a few hundred passengers sat passively while a handful of terrorists armed with nothing that really counts as a weapon took over four airplanes.

  2. Very late – but you pointed me to this from ‘Winds of Change’ just now, so ….
    A minor nitpick, although I agree with your analysis overall. You say that the WTC was not a ‘communications and control center’. I’m not sure about the ‘control’ aspect (or what that really means) but it was certainly a communications center. As far as I know, it was a hub for telecommunications (TV,radio and various other networking) because it was so tall. Quite a bit of NYC’s networking was stuck at the top.
    Having said that, I doubt it that had any bearing on it being the target. As you say, it was primarily symbolic.

  3. “We have to find a way to stop growing the people who do it.”
    Now here’s a novel idea. You mean we don’t just grab the oil and run? Actually we shared it with the Saudis (well, some of the Saudis) and now they have more VCRs than we have.
    But doesn’t sharing get in the way of the time honored and beloved aspects of a free and open market, not to mention capitalism and all its goods?
    Sounds very unprofitable to me and it can’t possibly work. Figure out a way to make some money from this idea and you might have a winner.
    All thoughts of goodness in my basically good heart disappear when someone wants a contribution or tax levy of more than $2.00 from my wallet for their project.
    This sounds like one of those silly plans to make all those black people equal by giving them an opportunity for an education with a bit of an edge over us white folks just because our ancestors weren’t slaves 150 years ago.
    Dumb liberals. I pay too much in taxes already and think they should be cut 75% across the board beginning with no budget in the future for items like repair of highways and maintenance of national parks and monuments.

  4. who ever said terriosm is wrong, im not suggesting its right but desperate measures need to be taking if dont respond to words. in all nature, we are human, and as humans fighting is what we do best otherwise we wouldnt be at the top of the food chain. terriosm is a good thing, and i would like to see more as it makes a very very clear statement
    (by the way, were all dead)

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