CIAO DATE: 9/01
From CIAO's Board: Commentary on the Terrorist Attacks against the United States
The following points (or theses) occurred to me in the last few days in reaction to the largely misconceived question what can we do about terrorism? and the equally misconceived notion of a war on terrorism.
(i) Terrorism is not an ism. No one stands for terrorism as though it were an ideology, a relatively coherent, normative view of change aiming to achieve some form terroristic society. No one or at least very few would confess that it is even a way of life in itself, a way of being towards the world. In some recent instancesRAF and the BR in the 1970s come to mindit does become such a way, but by circumstances rather than choice. Terrorism is a later addition to the semantic field of isms (socialism, libralism etc) that emerged in the 19th century; but it has no adherents, only users or inhabitants.
(ii) For terrorism as a general phenomenon is a range of violent actions, undertaken for political (ie ulterior) reasons and therefore situated, on the whole, at the level of tactics and strategy. As such, it has evinced a certain set of characteristics: exemplary, spectacular, unexpected, pinpointed, instilling fear and uncertainty, invisibility of direct origination, etc. Vastly different political entities and persuasions have been terroristic including governments (i.a. USSR in the 30s, the pathological killer regime of El Salvador sponsored by the US in the 80s) and dominant private forces (Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and 60s, perhaps more than the 1870s). Yet it is chiefly a strategy of the relatively weak. Designed to achieve a massive surplus effect, a value many times greater than the input, it is an economy of sorts.
(iii) Terrorism as a name is however like ideology in that it is what others do, a pejorative designation. Historical memory in that regard is remarkably short. Terrorists, those who use terroristic means, sometimes become respectable politicians and get to sup at the White House, if not with the Pope: Begin, Shamir and Arafat in one theatre of conflict, a goodish number of the IRA in another. Historical memory is similarly short when it comes to sponsorship. It is well to recall the leniency of the US government in the matter of harbouring sources of support for the IRA when it was launching bombs in London, to say nothing of the Contras or indeed the fact, passed over now in embarrassed haste, that the US government sponsored none other than bin Laden himself in his younger days when his target was the Sovet Union and its ally regime in Kabul, a secular regime whose values were infinitely closer to western liberalism (womens rights anyone?) than those of the ensuing reactionary variants of Islam supported by the west, a secular regime whose last secular leader ended his days hanging from a lamp-post with his testicles in his mouth. That process of support and arming was not, one could argue, for terrorism but for guerilla warfare and had to do with geopolitics. Granted, but it is worth asking what the reaction in the west would have been if, say around 1981, associates of bin Laden's had hijacked an Areoflot plane in Moscow and flown straight into some Stalin skyscraper. Scarcely any three minutes of silence in the EU, nor, one suspects, any claims to the effect that we are now all Soviets or Russians. (And the issue of 'invasion' does not alter the point, as bin Laden's grounding view is that his country and the world of Islam overall is now invaded by the US).
(iv) The features of terrorism as means are less interesting here in themselves (and necessarily change) than the point that, because it is not an ism and a positive claim, terrorism as a general phenomenon can only be fought negatively and preventively. It can never, any more than crime, be eradicated as such. One can narrow the openings by, for example, paying and training security guards at US airports a bit better and seeing to it that it is difficult to park vehicular bombs outside and indeed under significant buildings. Radioactive and biologically toxic materials can be kept under tighter wraps, and so forth. Intelligence, with greater coordination and resources, can also map and counteract specific threats (the US, notably, has done no searching assessment and coordinated overhaul here for a decade). In fighting a technology of political violence, one can be more or less technically effective. It a question of means.
(v) The idea of war on terrorism, meanwhile, is merely a rhetorical metaphor (cf a very good leader in the Independent, 17 Sept). Ever since William James, ironically for pacific and anti-imperialist reasons, invented the metaphor a century ago, there have been numerous wars in the United States on various things, most recently of course on drugs and crime, before that on poverty. This imaginary bellicism is a peculiar aspect of US liberalism (in the Hartzian sense) but that is a different matter. Nor is, or can, the west (or the civilized world in Tony Blairs typically obfuscatory recoding) be at war with terrorism in general. It does make sense, however, to see the *specific* relation with bin Laden and his rhizome-like network fundamentally as a war rather than simply a case of eradicating terrorism and evil. bin Laden himself sees it that way, encouraging and justifying horrendous acts of violence against civilians as retaliation for acts of war allegedly perpetrated against the world of Islam. This is a real political conflict with identifiable sides and enemies. A specific war, laid out publically in its larger contours, against bin Laden and his associates is a clearer concept than any attempt to render the whole matter juridical. Criminal acts have been committed for which there should and will be a juridical process; but bin Laden himself should not be brought to justice and would not expect to be. Unless the direct evidence against him is a lot better than it seems, such a trial would be, and would widely be seen to be, a political act, not a legal one.
(vi) The US has
now, peculiarly, been given a remarkable spectrum of political opportunity in
that regard, canvassing support from about as wide a coalition of forces as
one can imagine. For one thing, the events have opened up the smouldering and
potentially fierce conflict between Iran and Taliban/bin Laden, the Sunni Saudi
taking a deeply dim, in fact antagonistic, view of the Shiite Iranians. However,
I think this political moment is quite transient. Taking advantage of it in
the longer perspective would require a geopolitical reassessment of the Palestinian
issue as well as the larger problem of Gulf stability. In addition, one would
have to ask hard questions, as Edward Said said in the Observer last Sunday,
about the political posture of the United States in the world, questions about
the deeper reasons educated and seemingly rational individuals can decide to
kill themselves and so many innocent others. It is unlikely that the current
climate in the United States or indeed the mindset of the leadership (Powell
partly excepted) is such as to permit this sort of reassessment.
Kirkpatrick Professor of International Affairs
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Professor of Public Policy, Duke University
Director, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy
Response by Etel SolingenSteven Weber
Professor of Political Science
University of California, Irvine
Response by Stephan Haggard
Professor, Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies
University of California, San Diego
Response by Stephan HaggardPeter Katzenstein
Response by Robert Keohane