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Trends versus tactics

September 28, 2014

A few notes on the use of the word terrorism:

Terrorism is a military tactic.  More specifically, it is an attempt to produce obedience or compliance in an enemy by causing that enemy to fear the consequences of noncompliance.  The term is nearly always misued today.  It is not a religion.  It is not a philosophy.  It is not a political movement.  It is not membership in an esoteric club with a logically consistent set of internal rules and behaviors, nor is it the total absence of any set of rules.  And it is most definitely not a blanket term that can be used to describe any and all actions taken by the individual directly against the state.  Terrorism can be regarded to some extent as a synonym for extortion, although its goals are generally somewhat less concrete.  In either case, though, it is a straightforward concept in behavioral theory, without any intrinsic moral overtones.

Terrorism may also be subdivided into three levels based on its effectiveness: insufficient, sufficient, and excessive.  The German airship raids on Great Britain during World War I and the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States during the first decade of the twenty-first century are examples of insufficient terrorism.  (The use of the word “sufficient” as a qualifier is intended to raise the question of whether or not the terror produced by an action was great enough to accomplish the goals intended by the actor.)  Such attacks were intended to cow the target populations, reduce their morale, and contribute to their eventual surrender.  The attacks in question failed to do so; the fear they inspired was insufficient to produce lasting results.  Sufficient terrorism, on the other hand, is exemplified by the actions of every stable nation-state.  The nation-states of the present era keep several billion human beings in subjection solely by the threat of what they will do to them if they disobey the states’ orders.  The success of the state is due to terrorism on a large scale.  As for acts of excessive terrorism, these produce more resentment, anger, and hysteria than they do fear, and as such are counterproductive, because they generally result in a backlash against the terrorists.  The existence of a backlash is the simplest way of determining if an act of terrorism was excessive or not.  The Soviet actions in Afghanistan during the twentieth century and the Roman government of Britain during the first century AD leap to mind as examples of excessive terrorism.  In all of these cases, one group attempted to instill fear in another.  Sometimes these attempts created fear and succeeded; sometimes they did not create enough fear and failed.  In all of them, the principle involved was the same.

However, the state’s continued application of the term “terrorism” exclusively to the actions of non-state actors has more subtle implications.  An attack on a military base belonging to one state by another state is called war.  The same attack carried out by an individual or group of individuals is called terrorism.  Of course, the state desires to maintain the illusion of its monopoly on violence, so it naturally refuses to legitimize such individual actions by calling them “war”, a distinction that is reserved for application to conflicts between states.  But to term this sort of action terrorism is potentially illogical, since the purpose of the attack may not have been to produce fear.  It may simply have been to kill soldiers or destroy equipment or distract attention.  It may have been a tactical move intended to produce a practical, physical result rather than to instill terror.  So why term it terrorism inaccurately?  Laziness?  Linguistic anomalies?  Or is the use of the word in such a context itself a symptom of a terror that already exists in perpetuity?

Is there something inherently terrifying about a living, breathing man raising his hand against the incorporeal form of the state?

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