When Terror Reigns

What is terrorism, and why has it become the weapon of choice for marginalized minorities around the world? At least part of the answer is that, for those who engage in it, it seems to fill a basic human need.

Terrorism. Once a seemingly marginal threat to Westerners, over the past 50 years it has gradually assumed a prominent global focus. Since the 9/11 attacks on American soil, the focus has widened considerably as terrorists moved to target Spain, Britain, Norway, France, Bulgaria, Sweden and Belgium—a state of affairs that has prompted numerous headlines asking whether terrorism should be considered Europe’s “new normal.”

Whether or not it has become anything close to normal, it’s certainly nothing new. And that isn’t simply a reminder that other parts of the world have been continually battered by terrorism (though without receiving the same media attention afforded to Western targets; a car bomb in Baghdad killing more than 300 people in July 2016 barely made a ripple on social media compared to more highly publicized attacks in France and Belgium). Rather, it is to say that terrorism, as a control tactic, did not begin with ISIS, al-Qaeda or the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

The origin of the word “terrorism” (from the French terrorisme) is more obvious than the origin of the tactic. Coined during France’s “Reign of Terror,” Maximilien Robespierre’s bloody reign of “state terrorism” following the execution of Louis XVI, it described the actions of a regime that saw itself as having an imperative to terrorize. In a little over a year, Robespierre and his revolutionaries are estimated to have killed between 16,000 and 40,000 people in the name of justice—an end that apparently justified whatever means might be chosen, however horrifying. “Terror,” declared Robespierre in a 1794 speech, “is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible. . . . Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic.”

The English term for those who perpetuate terrorism is attributed to Edmund Burke in describing French conditions as he witnessed them: “They have a strong corps of irregulars, ready armed,” he wrote. “Thousands of those Hell-hounds called Terrorists, whom they had shut up in Prison on their last Revolution, as the Satellites of Tyranny, are let loose on the people.”

One hundred thirty years later the Caribbean island of Martinique, long a French colony, would be the birthplace of Frantz Fanon, who has been credited with spreading “the gospel of violence—and indirectly terrorism” through his widely read writings on the consequences of colonialism. Fanon described the dynamics of colonialism as a war of identities: the colonist imposes his traditions, values and ethics on the colonized, while the colonized quickly grasps that his own traditions, values and ethics must therefore be considered inferior by the colonist—subhuman. “It is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity,” Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory.”

And so begins the road to overthrow the invaders through “decolonization,” which Fanon called a “program of complete disorder.” This program “cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of a natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding,” he wrote. “The native who decides to put the program into practice, and to become its moving force, is ready for violence at all times. From birth it is clear to him that this narrow world, strewn with prohibitions, can only be called in question by absolute violence.”

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.”

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

One might argue (and many do) that Fanon was not so much promoting strategy as simply making observations. “Terror, counter-terror, violence, counter-violence: that is what observers bitterly record when they describe the circle of hate, which is so tenacious and so evident in Algeria,” he wrote of that country’s war of liberation from France.

If it’s true that the circle of colonialism and decolonization so often goes hand-in-hand with violence and terror on both sides, then it would be a mistake to think that terrorists and terrorism didn’t exist before the modern terms were born. In fact, history is replete with evidence that it did. In the first century, for instance, the Sicarrii (a Latin term for a group of radical Jewish assassins affiliated with the Zealots) practiced what is sometimes referred to today as liberation terrorism: they killed Roman soldiers and suspected Jewish collaborators in an attempt to free ancient Palestine from Roman rulership. Before that, the Romans used the term terror cimbricus to describe the panic and fear elicited by a group of invaders (the Cimbri) who inflicted devastating losses on the Roman Republic.

Even earlier, Assurnasirpal II, the conqueror and king of Assyria (ca. 884–859 BCE) boasted of activities calculated to instill terror in those who opposed him: “I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skin. Some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes. . . . Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears and their fingers, of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads.”

Terrorism Snarls

But wait. That’s not terrorism, is it? This describes the casualties of war; surely it all depends on how one defines terrorism? Well, precisely. And this is one of the areas where social scientist Neil Smelser says we become snarled, entrapped in our own thinking to the point that we can’t reach any useful conclusions. It may be a cliché that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, but clichés often exist for a reason. “Terrorism has never been defined properly by either scholars or political officials,” Smelser observed in his 2007 book, The Faces of Terrorism.

There are scores of definitions of terrorism,” agrees Anthony Marsella, who specializes in international and cross-cultural psychology. The common denominators include the use of violence and fear to bring about some sort of goal within a political context. “Terrorists do not usually meet or face armies in the field in open armed contact; the methods used are mostly surreptitious and the targets are civilian,” writes Marsella. “The intention is not only destruction, but also instilling fear and terror in a population.”

Such a description does not preclude its use by states, whether against their colonized populations or their own populations, nor by substates—including religious extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Beyond the fundamental problem of defining terrorism, we are equally challenged to come to useful research conclusions to help explain it. This is true despite the explosion of books on the topic in recent decades, as well as of research data in a number of fields relating to terrorism.

Indeed,” writes researcher and professor John Horgan, “in spite of this mass of data, or even perhaps because of it, it is ironic then that even now a true science of terrorist behavior continues to elude us. It still surprises us that just because there is more information on terrorism than ever before, it does not necessarily follow that we understand it any better.”

Part of the problem is that very little of the data that exists is verifiable. In terms of research, the topic of terrorism is an interdisciplinary tangle involving multiple sciences, including economics, politics, psychology, social influences, culture and history. Even where there may be consensus across these divides, verification is still difficult to achieve.

Due in part to our limited understanding of the complex forces behind terrorism, we also find ourselves snarled in debates about how best to approach the problem.

Terrorism is simultaneously criminal, political, economic, social, psychological, and moral in origin and consequence.”

Anthony J. Marsella, “Reflections on International Terrorism: Issues, Concepts, and Directions” in Understanding Terrorism

Despite the claims of some that they know precisely how to fight and defeat terrorism using warfare strategies, there is little historical evidence to suggest that simply upgrading missile defenses, protecting borders, or increasing security would do more than just redirect the flow of terrorism down alternative streambeds. The fact is that terrorism has been used as a tactic since the dawn of time; that is, as long as any other warfare strategy. And like any other actor in warfare—states and governors, tyrants and dictators—terrorists and their activities have never been eradicated. They have merely adapted to surmount new limitations by devising new strategies and harnessing new technologies to achieve their goals.

To What End?

But what goals are they trying to achieve? Throughout the ages surely every group, whether colonizers, decolonizers, freedom fighters or jihadists, has had its unique goals?

Are their differences simply ideological? One group disagrees with another’s politics and lifestyle, so terrorism is justified? These assumptions don’t make sense, as Marsella points out: “Clearly it is possible to be very discontent with government, even to the point of public protest and condemnations, without resorting to violence and destruction directed against the State.”

It may be tempting to point to the globalization of Western culture to explain terrorism. It’s true that America has been particularly instrumental in spreading Western values and worldviews to non-Western cultures. But many are the discontented who do not resort to terrorism. That doesn’t rule it out as a factor for those who do, particularly insofar as the invasion (call it a cultural colonization, if you will) threatens the core identity of the colonized culture. And indeed, Marsella writes that “the mass techno-commercial society emerging from American culture and penetrating the rest of the world is considered a real and tangible threat to traditional cultural identities and ways of life.”

That said, some Americans consider aspects of their own culture a threat to their traditional identities. Hence many on the so-called Religious Right protest the liberal encroachments of the left by embracing whatever political messiah promises to stem the tide. But in the main, these discontented do not start reigns of terror to express their ideological outrage.

When considering Islamic terrorism, many in the West blame Islam and, in fear, would close their borders to all Muslims. But the fact is that not all Muslims promote terrorist activity; many are fleeing the very terror the West has declared war against. And while their beliefs may come from the same book as those of extremist groups, it does not follow that their interpretation or implementation is compatible.

Consider that extremists can (and sometimes do) twist scriptures to justify violence. For instance, the civil statutes for ancient Israel as recorded in the Bible call for murderers to be killed. Many people who consider themselves Christian see abortion as blatant murder. They share this belief with those who use violence to express their antiabortion beliefs, but most Christians would never bomb a facility or kidnap its doctors or clientele. Sadly, international terrorism aimed at Western targets has sown a general mistrust of Muslims that does not discriminate between terrorist and antiterrorist convictions.

Boston University’s Jessica Stern, coauthor of ISIS: The State of Terror, suggests that this is no accident. Rather, it’s all part of the Islamic State’s conflicting goals. “In addition to controlling territory,” she writes, “the Islamic State also aims to sow chaos, to turn Muslims against one another, to incite internal divisions in the West and turn the West against Islam” (“Why the Islamic State Hates France”). With several of these goals it appears ISIS is enjoying considerable success. “The bottom line is this,” Stern concludes. “Terrorism is psychological warfare. It has been used by the weak against the strong for millennia. Among its multiple objectives is to make its victims overreact. We want to wage war to banish the feeling of being unjustly attacked or unable to protect the blameless. We want to wage war on evil. But sometimes the effect of our reaction is precisely that which we aimed to thwart—more terrorists and more attacks, spread more broadly around the world. This is the paradox of counter-terrorism—the military strategies required to defeat the threat today often bring more terrorism tomorrow.”

Perhaps that’s the paradox of war in general. The biblical principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was not meant to be applied at will by anyone who draws breath. It was, for that era, a civil response to a civil crime. But in war, a thirst for vengeance seizes both sides, threatening to leave the whole world blind and toothless. “Vengeance is Mine,” says the God of the Bible; “I will repay.” But humanity is addicted to war. We must be, or we wouldn’t return to it over and over, each time telling ourselves, “This time will be the last.”

Veteran foreign correspondent Chris Hedges, who has witnessed many of war’s atrocities personally, writes in his 2002 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. . . . The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”

War is an enticing elixir.”

Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

It’s true. Meaning and purpose are fundamental spiritual and psychological needs. They inform our identity, keep us from sinking into a debilitating mire of humiliation and self-loathing, and move us forward toward something outside ourselves. When they are absent we would give our lives for them, and terrorist groups exploit this human need on a daily basis when recruiting members.

In his May 2016 TV special “Why They Hate Us,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria noted that the violent jihadist recruits often know very little about Islam. Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi agreed: “In many cases they’re petty criminals, in many cases they’re dropouts, in many cases they’re unemployed, in many cases they’re drug users, who never had anything to do with religion, have no religious training whatsoever. They are completely ignorant, in other words, of religion. And they latch on to radical Islam as a way to act out their alienation.”

Clearly it is much easier to imprint one’s own meaning and purpose on the mind of a recruit who is lacking his or her own.

Stern’s research and experience underscore the relevance of life meaning and identity within terrorism. “While many experts focus on the Islamic State’s narrative of victory, I see a narrative of overcoming humiliation, and a chance to recover lost dignity. This narrative is meant to appeal to all the world’s oppressed.” As the Islamic State sows its ideology globally, says Stern, “it appeals, in Islamic State’s words, to the people ‘drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people.’”

It’s a twisted narrative rising from particularly violent interpretations of Islam. Muslim reformer Irshad Manji hopes to change this narrative for those who might be in danger of taking on the wrong identity. She points out that the Qur’an contains the raw material for a positive change of approach. She told Zakaria, “There is a beautiful passage in the Qur’an, one of many beautiful passages, that states: God does not change the condition of the people until they change what is inside themselves.”

The Bible likewise declares that a fundamental inner change—essentially a change of identity—is necessary before the human condition can change, and that it must lead people to the point that they will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” It asserts that the change must be permanent, such that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.”

It’s hard to imagine such a transformation as we look around at the current state of affairs. Sadly most of us, whether we look to the Bible or to the Qur’an for our standards, are apt to lean toward interpretations that will justify our desire for warfare rather than those that call on us to make the changes in our own hearts and minds that are necessary for permanent peace.

Yet until a burning desire to pursue peace becomes our “new normal,” the old normal will remain by default. And as long as it does, violence in all its forms—including terrorism—can only continue to reign.