Various Thoughts on Terrorism

May 17, 2009

It wouldn’t be my style to go too long without a random philosophical tangent that nobody really wants to read, and since this one was actually a class assignment in Spanish, it seems only appropriate that I write about my position on terrorism and terrorists for a bit. Plus, I’m sure it’ll make me some new enemies in the form of people who label me “naive” and “someone who needs to see the real world.” My preemptive response to you is that I’m living in a world much more real, much more difficult then you are, and I’m seeing the result of real terrorism, economic and political terrorism, every day of my life. Plus, I’m a million miles away, so your emotions aren’t going to reach me without losing their impact. That said, love to hear your responses on twitter (citizen_k) or on my blog, or at citizenk dot blog at gmail dot com. Bear in mind that if you are stupid, unable to argue logically, or use the terms “Nazi,” “appeasement,” or “post-9/11 world” in your response, I will definitely mock you publicly. So here we go, some random arguments on terrorism, terrorists, and the difference between a soldier and a terrorist.

First, I suppose we need a working definition of terrorism. The difficulty is that the word has become so commonplace in society today that it has taken on a variety of meanings. An accurate, non-fearmongering, non-anti-arab definition of terrorism can be stated roughly as follows: terrorism is a tactic of warfare (or fighting if you wish to raise the objection that warfare implies states and state-actors) that relies on instilling fear in one’s enemies, and one’s enemies’ friends and neighbors, in order to achieve one’s goals. An example of terrorism in practice would be a campaign in which a group of actors, state, state-sponsored, or completely independent, begins a coordinated bombing campaign of popular bars and nightclubs in a city, with the aim of reducing night life in their city. The reason for this course of action is unimportant to this example. The tactic of bombing popular areas filled with average citizens is employed not to kill those citizens, but to convey a message that all “average citizens” who frequent nighttime activities in the area are at risk. Thus, fear is used to influence the behavior of citizens, causing them to abandon the bars and clubs, and destroy the nightlife in much the same what that razing all of the buildings to the ground would have done, but cheaper, with less equipment and personnel, and without requiring superior forces. Thus let us add to the definition of terrorism a clause about cost, ease of acquiring desired results, and feasibility of use by small groups. Putting what I have written here together, a more inclusive definition of terrorism might be stated thusly:

Terrorism: a financially cheap and low-resource fighting tactic that relies on the instillation of fear in an enemy population to achieve one’s goals not by force, but by dissuading one’s enemies from behaving as they would normally would due to fear of retribution, harm, or loss, financial, bodily, or otherwise.

It is important to note here that the terrorist does seek fear (terror) as a goal, but instead uses it as a means to advance his goals, or to push a society toward the terrorists’ position in much the same way that a nation-state might use a “shock and awe” or “blitzkreig” campaign to instill terror in its opponent. In all cases, the goal is not the fear, but the paralysis, uncertainty, and unconscious behavioral modification that comes with a fearful state of existence. Those afraid are easily controlled and manipulated, and since this is not uncommon knowledge, the use of “terrorist” tactics, at least by this definition, are in widespread use today, and not just by the groups the US government labels as “terrorists.”

With this definition, who are the terrorists? The groups using terrorist tactics are myriad, but their goal, behavioral modification and self-limitation of freedom by the target group, is the same regardless of race, ethnicity, political affiliation, or means. The guerrilla fighter group that beheads all males in a nearby village because one member of that village aided their enemy is certainly using using terrorist tactics to achieve their goal. (Presumably to discourage other villages from aiding enemies of the group.) Moreover, this sort of activity is easily determined to be of the terrorist variety. However, what of less shocking, more commonplace examples? What is the lower bound of terrorism? Ought we restrict use of the term only to certain activities? Do actual results matter, or only goals? I will try to address these all in due time.

A more confusing example of terrorist activity can be found in the campaigns of baby formula companies in Latin America. Utilizing this area’s weak governments and even weaker corporate legal frameworks, these companies have spent decades on an extremely aggressive series of advertisements that portray mothers’ milk as unsafe, formula as a better substitute, and all but state that not using their product is harmful to the health of one’s infant. As a result of this, large cross-sections of the people do not nurse their children, childhood obesity rates are through the roof, adult obesity, cardio-pulmonary disease rates are skyrocketing, children suffer from weakened immune systems due to not receiving critical immunities from their mothers (which raises early childhood mortality rates) and the overall health, prosperity, and wealth-generation of these nations suffer. Oh, and some baby formula companies make an absolute killing, having convinced mothers to replace a better, free, healthier, naturally-occurring PART OF THEIR BODIES with an expensive, unhealthy, inadequate substitute. It’s awful, it’s inhumane, but is it an act of terrorism?

The tactic used in this fight (between mothers not buying their products and mothers doing so) is certainly fear. Fear of unhealthy babies, fear of being a bad mother, fear of doing something different then what the “experts” say one ought to. Fear is a central element to the campaigns to get mothers using baby formulas, and so in that aspect it definitely qualifies. The companies use no force to persuade mothers to use their products, and their goal is not the fear, but the behavior (buying baby formula) that this fear leads to. Thus, this sort of ad campaign appears to qualify under this definition of terrorism.

However, I would imagine that many people have a big problem using the word terrorism to describe the actions of these companies. This objection probably stems from the fact that it is very difficult to reconcile a baby being too fat, growing up with the resultant health problems, and dying an early death from an obesity-related disease with a person having their head cut off or being blown up outside of a nightclub. The means utilized in both instances is fear, but the intermediate means (what they do to instill fear) and the unwanted result (fat babies versus dead people) are vastly different, and that leads many people to reject the comparison. But are they really so different?

Is not the baby formula company responsible for the health problems, obesity, and early death of those babies raised drinking it? Shouldn’t the company be held, if not fiscally or legally, at least morally responsible for these problems? After all, their business is, in convincing the uneducated and gullible, through fear, to use a shoddy, expensive, and knowingly-inferior product in lieu of a perfectly good one that they already have, and they do so by preying on the love of every mother for her child. Without their interference, the incidence of women using formula in lieu of breastfeeding would most definitely be lower, if it occurred at all, which it wouldn’t if these companies didn’t persist in making their products. While on a single-incident basis this cannot compare to a beheading, or a suicide bombing, surely scale must come into play. Violent acts of terrorism, according to International Red Cross statistics that I cannot access because I don’t have regular Internet access but read a while ago when I did, killed several thousand people last year. How many people died in Latin America due to obesity-related diseases that stemmed from their early childhood? How many infants and young children died because they weren’t receiving the necessary nutrients and antibodies from their mothers? How many people spend their lives unhappy with their looks, with their bodies, simply because these companies decided to create a niche for a product that nobody should use save as a last resort, market it as a wonder-drug cure-all and make themselves rich in the process. I don’t have those statistics; likely nobody does. There’s no concrete way of measuring it, but from what I’ve seen down here, and from what I’ve read and learned, obesity is an epidemic sweeping the area, and early-infancy diet has lasting effects on the remainder of one’s life. While the actions of the baby formula companies aren’t flashy or gory, they are certainly fear-reliant and seek behavioral modification, and thus they are correctly labeled as acts of terror.

Now for something even more controversial. The actions of states in times of war, and oftentimes in times of “peace” are just as much acts of terrorism as those of the suicide bomber. The state uses fear in all actions during war in order to maintain discipline, patriotism, and a willingness to sacrifice in its people. This is not new – it stems from the tribalistic need to band together with those most like yourself in times of need – and tinpot dictators for all of human history have invoked threats of outsiders and those different to cement their rule. States are always guilty of using fear of “the other” to maintain their position at the apex of so-called legitimate society. I cannot stress this enough – fear is one of the great motivators, perhaps the greatest, and its use has been one of the pillars of every form of government that has ever existed on this planet. When times get hard, or when a state wishes to act in a way contrary to the wishes of its citizenry, it will invariably turn to fear to quell dissent and change public opinion.

The soldier is an instrument of fear. He is a tool by which the state can either maintain fear internally, or spread fear to other parts of the world. His job is not so much to kill, but to kill in such a way that he demolishes the power structure of the enemy in its entirety. When the soldiers have finished, those left alive ought to be willing to throw themselves at the feet of the soldiers and the mercy of the state because they fear for their lives and those of their families. This is why the crusaders slaughtered the populace of Jerusalem, why the allies carpet-bombed Dresden and incinerated Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima, why the United States massacred Iraqi troops fleeing Kuwait in the first Gulf War, and used “Shock and Awe” tactics against Baghdad in the second. If one searched history, these examples are but drops in the bucket of state terrorism. The simple act of killing sends a message, surely, but the act of utterly destroying a group or location, not restricting violence to combatants and instead killing soft, civilian targets is intended to strike terror into the hearts of a people. By having its soldiers utilize the weapon of terror, a state can modify behavior, crush dissent, and pacify those whom it wishes to control. Terror insures true victory, true subjugation, of one’s enemies.

On the homefront, a soldier is a useful weapon in state terrorism as well. He serves as a symbol, both of the power of the state, and as an ever-present reminder to the populace of the dark, scary, dangerous world that he is protecting them from. The soldier reinforces the message of the state by his very presence, and that message is “the world is dangerous: be afraid, give your freedom to us and we will protect you.” The soldier is an instrument of terror against the people in his state as much as those in neighboring states. He is the face of the beast, the grinning pop-out skull in the haunted house, the gritty, in-your-face reminder of the power of the state. The soldier is used at home to quell dissent, pump up nationalistic thought, to make the people give away their rights instead of the state having to take them by force. Here again terror, specifically the fear of the other, is used to modify the behavior of the people toward that which is easier to control, easier to manipulate, easier to quash when it does not meet the needs of the state. The soldier is the most professional, most well-trained, most efficient of terrorists, and his brand of terror has the backing of a nation.

Two differences is normally granted to the soldier, first that he is merely doing as he is ordered to, and would face penalties if he did not kill, and second that his actions are legitimized by the state. Both of these differences do not hold up to examination, and ironically it is the state-centric legal system that supports my position. First, the soldier’s orders do not legitimize his actions any more then the terrorists’. Both face strong penalties (the terrorist possibly stronger) for refusing to act thusly, they both likely joined their organizations voluntarily (excluding conscription) and they both are beholden to morality regardless of their orders. This final point is proven beyond a doubt in the Nuremburg trials after World War II, where the orders of a state or government were found insufficient to excuse the actions of those on trial. International standards of morality, respect for the basic human dignity, and right to life were found to have greater authority then any state actor, and there were a fair handful of death sentences at Nuremburg. One of the great tragedies of history is that we, the United States of America, one of the nations most responsible for injecting the rule of law into international relations to prevent warfare, have publicly abandoned this position of late and reverted to the use of terrorism and armed force to enforce our opinions. (Not that we don’t have a history of this, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.)

To review: both the soldier and the terrorist are likely voluntarily affiliated with their organization, and if they are not, the terrorist is probably more likely to have been forced to enter service. (You don’t see many 12-13 year olds with AK-47s in the US army, but they appear all the time in terrorist organizations.) They both will be penalized for refusing to act, and since modern militaries rarely shoot/kill their own as punishment for disobeying, the terrorist faces higher penalties here as well. Finally, all fighters, state-affiliated or otherwise, are obligated under international law to morally adhere to a code which puts human life and dignity above all else, and thus both sin equally in their kills. (I would further argue that this is not a matter of voluntary association, but of moral obligation. The taking of another human life in all contexts except self-preservation is morally wrong.) Thus the defining difference between the two is that the soldier is tied to a nation, represents said nation in his actions, and is protected and supported by the power, reputation, and resources of that self-same nation. In return, the soldier is given a level of protection from retribution for his actions, a justification for killing, a shield to deflect his human guilt at his actions. Beyond these superficial differences, the function of both the non-state terrorist and the soldier are the same – to control the behavior of some group through threats and fear.

What then can we conclude about terrorism? I think the wise conclusion would be to realize that terrorists and terror tactics are much more commonplace then we would normally assume, and that we are ourselves subjected to all sorts of fear-based marketing, behavioral modification, and control on a regular basis. Further, with our (tacit) blessing, the nations of the world, especially the industrialized military powerhouses, engage regularly in terroristic tactics to control natural resources, quell the self-determination of peoples, and maintain their positions of dominance/legitimacy. Finally, the most important conclusion here is that terrorism is a buzzword, a phrase that is itself used to invoke terror, to manipulate public opinion, and to delegitimize one’s opponents. Thus, we must be very careful in whom we call terrorists, and not forget to examine the motives of those willing to label others with the term. One may call a group or individual terrorist(s) but that oversimplifies that such groups cannot survive without the support of someone – it would be more productive to examine whom is lending that support, as this will give a better idea of what sort of group one is truly dealing with. This will then lead to strategies of dealing with said “terrorists” successfully, using appropriate means, and without turning the local population against you.

Please question your leaders, for unless you are billionaire investor who has financed their campaign, they do not have your best interests at heart. Terror is not the exclusive territory of poor brown people with bombs strapped to their chest, and the governments of the world are far more adept at it then any of the terror cells our leaders pay trillions of our dollars to fight. Think about it.

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