What should the Left have learned from the attacks and aftermath of September 11, 2001? For one thing, that it is too forbearing of clichés. A particularly egregious formula, pronounced a little too often and with a good deal of thoughtlessness after (but also before) September 11 was, “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” Such a claim skirts an obstinate, vital question. What actions are or are not legitimate on behalf of a cause? If you are a genuine pacifist, the answer is easy: Violence is never acceptable. If the cause is obviously wrong—Osama bin Laden’s jihad was in this category—then the answer is likewise evident: none. Still, the issue of means and ends needs much more consideration on the left.
Glance at what scholars and philosophers have written about terrorism and you will find considerable disagreement about its definition. Is it violence against illegitimate targets (that is, civilians)? Do innocents somehow become acceptable targets when a “greater cause” is served? Is assassination always terrorism? What about attacks on off-duty soldiers in—or out of—uniform? What of attacks on property? Is terrorism solely an act by extra-legal or non-state organizations? Or is there “state terrorism”?
Some commentators after September 11, frustrated by such thorny considerations—it would take a book to begin to address them—turned to a comment made long ago about an entirely different matter. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said that he could not characterize pornography with exactness, but he knew it when he saw it. Certainly, most people who watched those airplanes crash into the twin towers had no difficulty calling the event terror.
Most, but not everyone. Take for just one example a speech on “Terror” by Gayatri Spivak, a leading post-colonial theorist, not long after September 11. It exemplified—and exemplifies—a good deal of what is wrong in some quarters of the Left. In its published version (in boundary 2, Summer 2004), liberal use is made of scare quotes around various words, suggesting something wrong with them. “Something called ‘terror’ is needed in order to declare war on it,” we read. “Terror” (again in quotes) is the “name loosely assigned to the flip side of social movements.” Yet she also notes that when quotation marks are placed around phrases like “War on Terror,” it is to “commodify” them, particularly for use by the culture industry.
The critical thing about terrorism for her, apparently, is to imagine why someone does it; the reality of the victim vanishes, because terrorism is an “abstract enemy,” and fighting it is really an “alibi” for “imperialism.” Well, terrorism is actually more than that in her account. It is “the extreme end of autoeroticism,” since it is “killing oneself as other.” After additional philosophical ruminations and an unfortunate, wobbly attempt to understand terrorism in light of feminism, she contends—but this finally seems the point—that the important questions are Kashmir and Palestine. Yet Spivak, who says she is a pacifist, cannot bring herself to condemn Hamas, which has a genocidal program, for more than being “out of control.”
It would seem from this kind of logic that had some 3000 people who died by abstraction that September day been thinking this Columbia University professor’s thoughts on Kashmir and Palestine, Osama bin Laden might never have imagined his target. Perhaps he would even have rethought his greater cause. How different is this assessment from Pat Robertson’s proposition to his TV “Club” that September 11 was retribution for sin in America? The conclusion is obvious: an America that thinks right-wing Christian thoughts about, say, gays will be immune from terror.
Terrorism is not the sole political term that suffers definitional imprecision, but that doesn’t mean it should be in scare quotes. The word democracy derives from ancient Greek for “authority of the people.” Athens gave equal political say, in principle, to all citizens. We would note pointedly that this citizenship was flawed given our contemporary notions of democratic inclusiveness. Yet does that make democracy a scare-quote idea—a rhetorical trick—because all American citizens cannot assemble monthly to make policy choices? Or do we seek to amend it with notions like representation and then try to find ways to mend deficiencies of representation—and then the corrupting effects of socioeconomic inequalities?
The word democracy had a largely negative connotation between antiquity and the late eighteenth century. Delegates at the U.S. constitutional convention expressed disdain for it, identifying it with mob rule. Southern whites later justified segregation in the name of majority rule. And remember that twentieth-century Leninist contribution—democratic dictatorship?
Is one person’s “dictator” another person’s “democrat”? Perhaps in a Maoist mental universe.
Here is a useful, working description of political terrorism: purposeful, political violence that disregards completely the status of its target in the name of a greater cause. It is not a private act with a rationale. If you murder someone whose dog barks too much, it is a crime not political terrorism—even if you explain that people will now mind their irritating canine pets, permitting a happy purpose to be achieved (neighborhood calm). An assault on armed forces is not an act of terrorism. It is, however, an act of war, like the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
Terrorism rests on scrambling any moral calculus of means and ends. Leon Trotsky, debating John Dewey in the late 1930s, argued that if revolutionaries in quest of humanity’s liberation were afraid to shed blood they were like surgeons fearful to operate. The point, after all, wasn’t the thrill of a bomb or a scalpel. If something “really” leads towards liberation, the Old Bolshevik insisted, it was indeed permissible, however distasteful to bourgeois moralists. Violence by fascists, however, could not be justified in the same way, he elaborated. Revolutionary and reactionary terrorists were different in kind because of their goals.
Dewey responded that Trotsky mucked up any serious consideration of the relation between means and ends and especially the implications of means for ends. Swill also soaks the imagination of today’s religious fundamentalists, except for them the end is God’s kingdom. We saw one result from Islamists on September 11, 2001. Now pause and consider how the right-wing Christian fundamentalist who terrorized Oslo and slaughtered teens at a Labor Party camp this past summer justified himself with a corrupt riff on liberal John Stuart Mill: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.”
If you believe that you have the sole path to all-encompassing liberation or the road map for the one-way route to heaven—or to a pure nation or society—there really is no such thing as collateral damage. If you believe that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist, can you answer these questions: Is any target illegitimate in pursuit of your goal? Which? Why?
I know that some think that these aren’t the real issues for the Left. But no matter is more important to left-wing thinking than the relation between means and ends. The Left’s traditional criticisms of capitalism, for one important example, were not restricted to the poverty and social suffering it fosters. The Left also protested an economic system that turned human beings into commodities, things, means to an end—profit—of someone else. Can it be that means and ends matter in society and economics but not in political violence and warfare?
What of the proposition that terrorism is simply the recourse of the poor or weak? Consider the implication: Deprived people or those at some political disadvantage lack the moral intelligence to distinguish between, say, fighting an illegitimate military occupier and setting off a bomb in a market. But poor men and women have fought for freedom without doing the latter. (In any event, Osama bin Laden was no pauper.) Ponder another plausible inference: If they cannot distinguish targets for violence, why should they have the right to vote?
To say that “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” insults freedom fighters.
The third world replaced the working class in the intellectual universe of part of the Left in the 1960s and after. Colonialism was, surely, reprehensible; the world is better, radically so, for decolonization. But a fantasy based on a simplistic substitution of universalizing protagonists—the third world for the industrial proletariat—in world historical combat did not make for a better, intelligent Left or a better, more intelligent and contemporary internationalism. In recent decades third worldism became post-colonialism in our universities, an ideology jazzed up by postmodernism and aligned to a canon of race, gender, and class. Its prominence is a result of the failure first of Marxism and Leninism and then of Western social democrats who have been incapable of inventing persuasive responses to the problems of the last half-century.
But what suggestions have come from post-colonial theory that might change seriously the lives of the world’s poor? New literary analyses of ressentiment? Has it re-imagined unions and organization in the workplace? Has it explained how to challenge the priorities and powers of financial markets? These things require actual proposals, not formulas about “Otherness.” (Please, someone, save this word! It was once valuable.) Or has post-colonial theory encouraged the kind of “understanding” that allows some people to imagine that terrorism is freedom fighting when “really” on behalf of human liberation or “really” on behalf of anti-imperialism? Or, to point to a contemporary symptom of the same problem, has it encouraged the pretense that a “Free Gaza” can be under the rule of right-wing Islamists who embrace terrorism?
Reducing all politics to “imperialism versus anti-imperialism,” is the gag of Gog and Magog. Things don’t—history doesn’t—work so simply. The United States, in response to the attacks of September 11, launched and botched an invasion of Iraq, in part with spurious rationales. Yet one day researchers may reach interesting conclusions about the long-term impact on the Arab world of TV images that showed a disheveled, once swaggering dictator crawl out of a hole. Stable democracy will probably not be the long-term result of the recent Arab upheavals or of the American misadventure in Iraq, but the fate of Baghdad’s strong man certainly showed that his like is not invincible. Bin Laden’s version of jihad and his organization suffered severe setbacks in the year leading to the anniversary of September 11. These were due both to U.S. forces—most important, the killing of bin Laden—and the fact that al Qaeda had no role in the dramatic changes in the Middle East. But these do not preclude a region in which a different kind of extremism, that of the Muslim Brotherhood, functions as superego. And one person’s religious fanaticism is also not another person’s democracy.
Mitchell Cohen was a 2010-11 writing fellow at the Levy Biography Center at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. He is a professor of political science at Baruch College, CUNY and was co-editor of Dissent from 1991-2009.