Five Questions About Terrorism

Five Questions About Terrorism

This is not going to be a straightforward and entirely coherent argument. I am still reeling from the attacks of September 11, and I don’t have all my responses in order. I will try to answer five questions about terrorism. Whether the answers add up to a “position”-theoretical or practical-I will leave to the reader.

(1) What is terrorism?
(2) How should we go about explaining it?
(3) How is it defended or excused?
(4) How should we respond?
(5) What will be the signs of a successful response?

(1) What is it?

It’s not hard to recognize; we can safely avoid postmodernist arguments about knowledge and truth. Terrorism is the deliberate killing of innocent people, at random, in order to spread fear through a whole population and force the hand of its political leaders. But this is a definition that best fits the terrorism of a national liberation or revolutionary movement (the Irish Republican Army, the Algerian National Liberation Front [FLN], the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Basque Separatist Movement, and so on). There is also state terrorism, commonly used by authoritarian and totalitarian governments against their own people, to spread fear and make political opposition impossible: the Argentine “disappearances” are a useful example. And, finally, there is war terrorism: the effort to kill civilians in such large numbers that their government is forced to surrender. Hiroshima seems to me the classic case. The common element is the targeting of people who are, in both the military and political senses, noncombatants: not soldiers, not public officials, just ordinary people. And they aren’t killed incidentally in the course of actions aimed elsewhere; they are killed intentionally.

I don’t accept the notion that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Of course, the use of the term is contested; that’s true of many political terms. The use of “democracy” is contested, but we still have, I think, a pretty good idea of what democracy is (and isn’t). When communist Bulgaria called itself a “people’s democracy,” only fools were fooled. The case is the same with terrorism. In the 1960s, when someone from the FLN put a bomb in a café where French teenagers gathered to flirt and dance and called himself a freedom fighter, only fools were fooled. There were a lot of fools back then, and back then-in the sixties and seventies-was when the culture of excuse and apology was born (but I want to deal with that later).

(2) How should we go about explaining terrorism-and particularly the form of terrorism that we face today?

The first thing to understand is that terrorism is a choice; it is a political strategy selected from among a range of options. You have to imagine a group of people sitting around a table and arguing about what to do; the moment is hard to reconstruct, but I am sure that it is an actual moment...