Wednesday, February 24, 2010

What is Terrorism?

Joseph Stack's suicidal attack on the Austin IRS offices last week sparked an interesting debate about what terrorism is. Opinion is divided on whether Stack was acting as a terrorist. Here is my take.

Scenario #1: There is some act, A, that I want you to do. I approach you and a friend. Your friend is "innocent" in the sense that they are not responsible for your not doing A. I draw a gun and point it at you, threatening to kill you if you do not do A. This is coercion.

Scenario # 2: Same as above, but I initiate our conversation by drawing my weapon and blowing your friend's brains out, right before your eyes. I then point my weapon at you. You are terrified and demoralized. Your capacity for rational deliberation has been more or less wiped out. Whatever I do next, you are much more likely to do A than you were a moment ago. This is terror.

[Hat-tip: For these examples I am indebted to professor and dissertator Mohamed Abed.]

Terror is a non-coercive use of violence, though typically it is part of a wider coercive plan. Another sort of violence, quite different from both, is revenge. Coercion and terror are both cases of strategic behavior (aimed at altering future behavior on the part of someone else) while revenge is non-strategic. In revenge we inflict harm as an end in itself.

Revenge is retrospective and despairing. It redresses an evil in the past, not by making the future better, but by adding another evil. Terror is prospective and optimistic. The terrorist is trying to steer the future in a good direction. Terrorist suicide bombers do not commit suicide because they see their lives as hopeless: quite the reverse.

Some people have argued that Stack cannot be regarded as a terrorist because he was not part of a conspiracy, such as Al-Qaeda. If you accept the above view, this is quite irrelevant to whether he acted as a terrorist or not. Terror is defined by motive and method, not by social context.

Others have pointed out that his suicide note said he hoped that his attack would spark an uprising. I am inclined to think that this is evidence that his act was terrorist in nature. At least, it suggests that his behavior was strategic.

Still others have said that the fact that he burned his house down is evidence that his behavior was not terroristic. That may well be right. This seemingly pointless act of destruction suggests that his motives were pure hatred and anger, and that his act was non-strategic, belonging in the category of revenge and not terror.

Others have said that the only reason he is not universally regarded as a terrorist is that he was white. I rather doubt this, as his act was genuinely ambiguous. It really depends on which aspect of his act you take more seriously.

Unless someone gives me a good reason to think otherwise, I currently lean toward thinking of Stack as a despairing, vengeful nut and not a genuine terrorist.
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