For some time now I’ve been thinking about starting to write about what I see in the news. Not as political commentary exactly, but rather as an extension of my work as an arts critic—a critical lens on how I see ideas being formed not only in the media but also among the online communities I find myself part of. I resisted for a long time because it’s a slippery-slope down into the think-piece industrial complex, but I figured I’d give it a stab.
Today, I want to write about “terrorism.” I hate the word. I think it’s overused. I think people rely on it as a rhetorical crutch. And all of that does real work in the world that I find very frightening.
Terrorism is a subject on which so much has been written, which intersects with so many different sorts of discourses, there’s not too much to add. Yet ironically, we in America seem to constantly be fighting about who is or is not a terrorist. Consider the man who just murdered three people in a mass shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood. Intersecting as it does with the messy and vicious Republican presidential primaries, liberal and even mainstream publications have been tracking with intense interest which candidates have chosen to name these shootings “terrorism,” which apparently would imply a willingness to risk alienating Christian Evangelical voters, who might not look so unfavorably upon an individual motivated to kill in the name of protecting unborn children.
That politicians are manifestly unqualified to determine what is and is not terrorism with little or no information besides news report, is the least of the problems with this model of thinking. It’s clear that the question has little to do with whether the politician is qualified to make such a distinction or whether they even really believe it. Rather, it’s a litmus test as to how far they will go to condemn an act violence committed by someone on “their side,” a test administered by those whose political beliefs are most directly offended by the violence. The right will demand the left and their leaders condemn violence against Christians as terrorism, and the left will demand the right and their leaders condemn violence against women’s health centers as terrorism.
But what even is “terrorism”? There’s actually not one answer. There’s a legalistic answer, certainly. Recently, Hopes & Fears published an illuminating explanation of what makes something a terrorist organization in the US. Specifically it’s about the Ku Klux Klan, but its lessons are widely applicable.
But this, it seems to me, misses the point. In fact, I wonder if there even should be a legal definition of what makes an act a “terrorism” as opposed to some other form of criminal enterprise. This might seem counter-intuitive—obviously terrorists are motivated by political goals as opposed to simple profit, which motivates criminal enterprises from drug cartels to the Mafia—but I think it’s actually quite troubling we would establish law to make such a point. It’s creating an exception within the law for certain sorts of activities that would already be illegal. It’s similar to hate crime legislation, which defines certain crimes as exceptional if they are related to certain forms of prejudice. And these makes sense to me. To pass a hate crime law is to acknowledge that it is more objectionable—or at least worthy of noting the exceptional nature of such an act—to beat up someone because he’s gay, for instance, than to beat up someone outside a bar because you’re drunk and got in a fight.
But to apply this to terrorism is to invite into discussions of “terrorism” a certain politics at odds with what we seem to mean when we use the term. For instance, I’ve seen many people on social media complain loudly, in the wake of the Planned Parenthood shootings, that this is clearly terrorism committed by white Christians or the like, as a way of opposing and contrasting the right’s anti-refugee stance, which is predicated on a fear that “terrorists” will disappear into the mass of Muslim refugees from Syria to commit acts of violence in the countries that invite them in. “Why can’t the right just admit that whites commit more terrorism in the US than ISIS and al Qaeda?” they ask, not entirely unreasonably. Basically, these critics are accusing the right of being racist and holding double-standards when it comes to violence committed by white people in the US and brown people from Muslim countries.
And they’re right. It is racist. But they’re making the point in a silly and misguided and even dangerous way. To answer their question for them, the reason it’s harder to label the Planned Parenthood shootings terrorism than other acts is politics. There are those using the levers of government to provide latitude to those who protest abortion, and who don’t want to use the law in such a way that risks legally labeling such acts terrorism. When it comes to animal rights, on the other hand, they’ve been very clear. In 2006, the US government established a law which clearly and unambiguously defines what constitutes “terrorism” with regard to pursuing animal rights. It’s even called the “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.” And you don’t even have to hurt—let alone kill—anyone to become a terrorist under its statutes. You just have to cause enough monetary damage.
In contrast, the most aggressive law related to abortion clinics doesn’t much concern itself with notions of terrorism; rather, it limits itself to ensuring patients can get to the door without violating the protesters First Amendment rights.
So, while we generally get that part of the debate over labeling certain acts “terrorist” is a matter of political rhetoric, it’s also related to actual laws put in place by actual politics.
Even more troubling, though, to my mind, is what happens when you try to define in the abstract what terrorism is. Plenty of people have tried (and as mentioned, the law sometimes seeks to define it for us), but for me, I keep going back to Max Weber.
In his famous 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber offered his classic definition of what constitutes our modern idea of a State: It’s any “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Politics, then, is whatever means are employed to legitimize control over the state, which in turn is legitimized by its monopoly on the use of violence.
This is where terrorism becomes an interesting and frightening concept. Generally everyone would agree that terrorism is an inherently political activity; even when motivated by religious beliefs, its clear intent is to enforce these as a component of a political agenda. Yet in Weber’s definition, it’s hard to argue that terrorism could truly be a component of a politics. Rather, it seems to seek to undermine the legitimacy of the state itself by challenging its monopoly on the use of force.
And this we can distinguish from mere “crime.” Consider a mugger who uses violence to steal money. It’s clear in this case that although the violence transgresses the State’s claim to monopoly on the use of force, that this act was performed in spite of such laws without any real interest in undermining their fundamental legitimacy. Indeed, crime in this case is arguably predicated on the State’s enforcement of laws since it permits for the very conditions for the crime to occur, much as the efficacy of a lie is predicated on the assumption of the recipient being offered the truth.
But what if someone goes to a gay nightclub and firebombs it because it is filled with gay people, whose existence offends him for whatever reason. Not only does this more clearly match our idea of what a terrorist act “looks like,” but it’s also a direct assault on the State’s claim to a monopoly on the use of force. The terrorist here wishes the State would suppress homosexuality in some fashion; in the absence of State action, he takes on the burden himself.
In this explanation, violent crime is violence committed despite the laws to the contrary; terrorism is violence committed because of laws to the contrary.
This is where things start to get really scary. Although related to politics, it’s clear that terrorism isn’t politics-as-usual. It doesn’t actually further a political goal, since by its nature it threatens the very legitimacy of the State itself. In response, the State must act to defend its monopoly on the legitimate use of force, which quickly risks becoming a downward spiral. While often police and legal mechanisms can be used to establish control, the State would have no reason to stop at existing legal boundaries to suppress terrorism since a failure to do so would risk delegitimizing the State itself, and without the State, what good are the laws the State would have violated defending its legitimacy in the first place?
The “war on terror” is certainly rhetorical bullshit, but it nevertheless gets to something fundamental about the existential threat terrorism poses. When we permit for the very legitimacy of the State itself to be called into question, it should come as no surprise that the State will invoke the laws of war rather than the laws of peace to defend itself. And when it comes to war and its supposed “laws,” Cicero said all that needed to be said over 2,000 years ago: “Inter arma enim silent leges (In times of war, the law falls silent).”
The second—but no less frightening—thing to draw from this analysis is that terrorism is terrorism not because of the means it employs to seek its ends (though these ends are the motivation for it in the first place), but rather because the means threaten the legitimacy of the State. Full stop. That is, to return to our example of bombing a gay club, the act becomes terrorism not because it targets homosexuals against the law, but because the individual, through the act, claims for himself a right that truly should belong to the State.
In the modern American context, this probably seems immediately ridiculous. It’s not. “The US government doesn’t reserve the right to kill gay people for itself, that’s not what this is about,” some will argue. That claim is silly and wrong. The United States is a country founded on the principle that humans are all created equal, yet permitted for decades a perfectly legal framework for buying and selling humans for the purpose of forced labor. It took a civil war to end the practice, civil war being exactly what happens when the State loses its legitimacy through failing to defend its monopoly on the use of force. We’re a State not because of our first principles, and our first principles are insufficient in and of themselves to prevent the State from violating them. The State is predicated on its monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, and those who wield power through the legitimizing political process have that power at their disposal.
This second point is what I think people forget most often in their rush to label someone like Robert Lewis Dear a “terrorist”—which really we want to do to tar the rest of the anti-abortion movement by association. That is, in our rush to establish his moral complicity with the likes of ISIS, we miss the point that most anti-abortion activists are perfectly happy to use the State’s right to violence in order to achieve their ends and have no interest in losing those levers. Back in June, Slate published an article by an abortion provider who described in detail the lies, bad science, misinformation, and unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles the anti-abortion right has imposed to keep women from seeking healthcare in some states. Not only are these perfectly legal impositions pretty violent and cruel in their own right, but they produce the sort of conditions the author relates in a closing anecdote:
Last month, I received an email from a friend of a friend asking for help. She described a situation her family was going through that immediately put a knot in my stomach. Her niece, let’s call her Jane, is a minor who just found out she was pregnant and is not yet ready to be a mother. Scared and alone, Jane decided to take up smoking in the hopes that tobacco would end her unwanted pregnancy. She also arranged for kids at school to “jump her” in the hopes that the blows to her abdomen would stop the fetus from growing. Never mind the impact of tobacco or physical assault on her personal health—Jane is so terrified (and in her state, so restricted in her options) that she’ll do anything to end an unwanted pregnancy.
I hope that my frustration with bandying about the T-word is perhaps becoming clear. As reprehensible as Dear’s murders may be, they’re a tiny drop in the bucket when it comes to the amount of violence enacted against women seeking family planning services in this country. Many if not most Republican presidential candidates didn’t hesitate to label the act terrorism. And why wouldn’t they, when they can use the law to force teenage girls to pay people to beat them into miscarriage for lack of access to a doctor?
And given that, why would anyone be concerned with whether a politician labels Dear a terrorist or not when that politician is openly running on a platform to continue doing this and worse?
And in the process, our willingness to label more and more thing terrorism invites the State to continue violating our civil liberties, establish a security apparatus to regulate our actions, and build out a police state at home while waging unending, unregulated war abroad.