In his incomprehensibly celebrated book “The Lessons of Terror“, Caleb Carr makes the critical error in the first sentence of Chapter One:
Long before the deliberate military targeting of civilians as a method of affecting the political behavior of nations and leaders came to be called terrorism, the tactic had a host of other names. From the time of the Roman Republic to the late eighteenth century, for example, the phrase most often used was destructive war. The Romans themselves often used the phrase punitive war, although strictly speaking punitive expeditions and raids were only a part of destructive war.
Terrorism is not “…the deliberate military targeting of civilians as a method of affecting the political behavior of nations and leaders…” and has never been. The key error is the use of the word military, which implies some level of identifiable centralized control.Total war – the kind of war practiced in tribal societies, in which (as an example) the city is sacked and burnt, the men and boys killed, and the women and children taken as slaves – is not terrorism. Strategic war, as threatened through my childhood and young adulthood, in which the possibility that cities would be vaporized, or as practiced in Hamburg and Tokyo and Dresden in World War II – is not terrorism.
Those may be war crimes, as we define them today (although I will point out the unique character of Western society in which we are willing to find our own troops, as well as those of the defeated forces, guilty of war crimes), but they are not terrorism.
They are not terrorism for two simple reasons.
They are carried out by identifiable agents of a power (tribe, city, state) who bears the moral and physical hazard of having carried them out. They are carried out against people who are at least given the sad dignity of being the objects of violence, not bloody Post-It notes left behind to send a message to some abstract ‘other’.
Terrorists do neither.
And that matters, for both practical and moral reasons.
Dead is dead, you may say. What possible difference can it make?
But there is a difference. And the difference is both moral and practical.
Let’s address practicality first. The hardest part about winning wars is managing them – simply deciding that you won’t ‘kill everyone and let God take his own’, but to stop the violence at some point and let some people live. Wars that don’t have rules are called massacres. The notion of tit-for-tat is as old as recorded history. Going to Thucidydes (via Kagen’s great retelling):
On a cloudy night early in March 431 over three hundred Thebans sneaked into Platea guided by Nauclided, a leader of the Platean oligarchic faction who, with his traitorous supporters, wanted to destroy the democrats who were in power and turn the town over to Thebes. The Thebans expected the unprepared Plataeans to surrender peacefully and, threatening no reprisals, invited all the townspeople to join them.
[The Plateans fought back, defeating the Thebans]
…the Platean woman and the town’s slaves, screaming for blood, climbed to the rooftops and threw stones and tiles at the invaders. The disoriented Thebans fled for their lives, pursued by the natives who knew Platea’s every feature. Many were caught and killed, and before long the survivors were forced to surrender.
[The Theban relief couldn’t get to the town and withdrew.]
Although the forced withdrew, the Plateans executed 180 of their captives regardless. By the traditional standards of Greek warfare this was an atrocity, the first of many that only grew in horror as the years of war went by. But a sneak attack at night in peacetime was also outside the code of honor of the hoplite warrior and seemed therefore to warrant no protection for its perpetrators.
In tit-for-tat, whose who abide by the rules in turn can expect to have the rules upheld for them. Recent neurobiology has suggested that this impulse – to ‘fairness’ or if treated unfairly, to revenge – is one that is deeply rooted in the brain.
Brian Knutson, a Stanford University psychologist who studies the neural basis of emotion, says the Swiss report is the first to make the neurological link between fairness and the striatum.
“Instead of cold calculated reason, it is passion that may plant the seeds of revenge,” he notes in a accompanying commentary.
The study also reveals that revenge seekers are completely blinded by passion, Fehr points out. As volunteers considered whether to pay up to get payback, researchers noted that the medial prefontal cortex became active. In previous studies, this area of the brain has been linked to weighing the costs and benefits of taking action. Even as scientists gain a better understanding of the biological underpinnings of fairness, others are trying to understand its origins.
Sarah Brosnan, an Emory University anthropologist, says an important question is whether a sense of fairness is something people pick up in school, home or church, or whether it’s a concept that has been hardwired into the human brain over the eons.
In continuing work with capuchin monkeys, Brosnan and her colleague Frans de Waal of Emory have found compelling evidence of an evolutionary origin. The monkeys, it turns out, know a raw deal when they see one.
We humans are also literally unable to think clearly when blinded by the desire for revenge or to redress perceived unfairness.
Military discipline exists to overcome this monkey rage, both to improve the odds of an army’s success and to ensure that the commanders of that army can remain in command once the emotions of battle – rage, fear – revenge – take hold.
The strength of anonymous terrorist attacks – that the weaker target will not use it’s superior strength to simply massacre those it believes are at fault – is a brittle one when confronted with those emotions if they mount too far. Russia has been unstintingly brutal in repressing the Chechen guerillas – and may be far more brutal in repressing Chechen terrorists.
But I don’t reject terrorism only out of fear that it will make us do bad things – although I worry about that. I reject terrorism, and believe it must be rejected rather than seen as ‘diplomacy by another means’ because I believe that the states that it would birth would be horror shows.
The existence of discipline over force is itself a key, I believe, to the recognition of a power as a state and the key to the foundation of a state based on political power, rather than terror and tyranny. I talked about Max Weber and the PA, but let me requote him here:
‘Every state is founded on force,’ said Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as ‘anarchy,’ in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state–nobody says that–but force is a means specific to the state. Today the relation between the state and violence is an especially intimate one. In the past, the most varied institutions–beginning with the sib–have known the use of physical force as quite normal. Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that ‘territory’ is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the “right” to use violence. Hence, “politics” for us means striving to share power, either among states or among groups within a state.
Because political movements that subscribe to terrorist tactics (and again, I’ll make a clear and significant distinction between terrorism and guerilla warfare) explicitly reject the notion that they are the source of the terrorist’s right to use violence, the key element needed to support a political state (as opposed to a tyranny) is missing.
Israel was founded in part by terrorists. But when they blew up the Altalena, the government of Ben-Gurion reclaimed its monopoly on violence, and claimed the State of Israel as a political state. Can you imagine a Palestine in which Arafat sunk the Karine A? Or in which the PA officials who he ‘arrested’ afterward actually spent time in jail?
Terrorism, even if successful, is not a path to liberation. It is instead a path to the kind of tyranny and madness we see today in the West Bank and Gaza, that we saw in Afghanistan’s soccer stadiums as crowds gathered to watch the executions.