A Terrorist By Any Other Name

Most Americans think they know what “terrorism” is: what happened on 9/11, what happened in Orlando.  Islamic militants murdering innocent civilians out of hate and in the cause of jihad. Experience shapes how we understand the world. The Global War On Terror has been oriented accordingly.

More formal definitions of “terrorism” try to extend the term so as to encompass a wider range of violent acts. Here is one:

Terrorism is commonly defined as violent acts (or the threat of violent acts) intended to create fear (terror), perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal, and which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (e.g., neutral military personnel or civiliansWikipedia

This formulation strives to be objective and disengaged from individual events - however noteworthy. Popular attitudes, the media usages and political oratory tend to revert to the entrenched more common usage. For “terrorism: -as word and concept –- is emotionally charged. Hence, the killings by Dr. Nidal Hassan at Ft. Hood are labelled “terrorism” while the rampage of Dylan Roof in Charleston in the name of White Supremacy is just mass murder.

Similar inconsistencies are evident in the labels attached to violent actions abroad. “Terrorism” usually is reserved for the actions of sub-national groups; governments of states are exempt even when the purpose of instilling fear is advertised in advance as in “shock and awe.” It was Iraqis, not future historians, who were meant to experience “shock and awe.”

A fruitful discussion of “terrorism” requires a specification of the exercise’s purpose. Is it primarily to define the term’s meaning with as much precision as we can ― with the companion objective of using it to delineate the various forms and modalities of its multiple manifestations? If we were to succeed, it then becomes an intellectual tool to illuminate the range of real life phenomena that exhibit characteristics associated with a more general, less precise use of the term. This is the rigorously logical approach taken in science. There, the only acceptable attitude is to seek finer and more refined classifications of observed reality so as to advance our understanding.

Many in the public discourse about “terror” have a quite different purpose.  It is to apply the word as a pejorative to certain acts and actors in order to stigmatize them.  This is a political exercise rather than an intellectual one. Hence, the promiscuous appellation “terror” and “state sponsor of terrorism” in accusations that target Iran –- however inconsistent that usage is with the terminology applied to the behavior (real or imagined) of other states e.g. Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners. The aim is to produce a certain emotional effect that encourages certain types of responses. In popular usage, it is akin to calling someone a “bastard” or a ‘son of a bitch” as an insult without bothering to determine the legal status of his parents or his mother’s temperament.

There is a third ― also loose ― use of the term “terror” by the media. They seek the “wow” effect. If 8 people die from the violent act of some crackpot, they are just as dead whether an anchor decides to use the word “terror” or not. Of course, were there clear organization and direction by some identifiable group with a political agenda, the designation might have some meaning. But for the MSM that usually is less important than being able to stick the terror label on an event in order to generate the most excitement and follow-on viewership. If the alleged “terrorist” has a beard, so much the better.

It is instructive, too, to examine closely “terror” as a legal concept. For that examination highlights that precise stipulations of what is illegal are the sine qua non for making judicial determinations.   However, it is not obvious that legal determinations are at the heart of the matter when we speak of actions that transcend borders in one way or another. Admittedly, the attempt to make such a determination can be important insofar as the United States government and a few others have sought to establish a legal standard as the basis for applying sanctions of one kind or another. The effort to come up with an agreed international standard is much more difficult ― for readily identifiable reasons. (As with “aggression.”) In either instance, the designation of certain actions as being beyond the legal pale runs up against two recurrent problems.  First is the question of legitimacy. There is in fact no authority that can rightly claim indisputable authority to stipulate illegal behavior ― even were it possible to agree on a definition. Second, there is no impartial judicial authority to make the crucial determination of violation and therefore guilt. In short, there is no international “government.”

So what we have is a patchwork of mainly unilateral, nationally prescribed rules that reflect the interests and preferences of each country. As is normal, the more powerful countries try to universalize those rules and norms. That is what has been going on in regard to “terror.” This is a futile approach. Governments, groups and persons will continue to do what they deem necessary without regard to what Washington or largely Western legal scholars think. Moreover, anyone who challenges the status quo will make the charge of hypocrisy - on justifiable grounds. Was the unsanctioned (by the UNSC) American invasion of Iraq legal in any sense of the term? Are Israel’s attacks on Gaza distinguishable from “terror” in any meaningful sense? Are “signature strikes” by drones? Is Saudi Arabia’s air campaign against Yemeni cities?

Is it not more productive from a policy perspective to do the following:

  1. Identify and specify various categories of violent behavior that fall broadly under a loose conception of “terror” -– assigning certain traits to each

  2. Use the resulting taxonomy as the basis for understanding the whys and hows of each instance.

  3. Make a determination of what might be the most effective way to address them ― from a given government’s perspective, NOT from the perspective of some abstract standard of crime and illegality.

  4. That response may logically include an attempt to mobilize resistance by stigmatizing a given action as “terror.” But that in itself is not a legal exercise or a valid intellectual exercise.

  5. As to outlawing it ― good luck. People have tried to outlaw war and other forms of inter-state and sub-national violence for a few centuries. It won’t and can’t work.

Perhaps the most notable achievement is the promulgation of international law to set limits on the employment of violence is the Convention Against Torture. It expresses an ethical consensus that emerged from an awareness of common humanity. However, violations of the Convention have been widespread - even among the postwar Western countries. The French used torture extensively in Algeria. The United States established an elaborate torture regime under orders from the White House which judged international prohibitions on torture “quaint”. The treatment of Manning, too, meets the US military’s own definition of torture. Admittedly, there were some practices that American authorities could not abide; so they were sub-contracted to specialists in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Ethiopia and Thailand.

The Orlando episode illustrates these conceptual and intellectual ambiguities. As the news broke, it was easy to reach for the “terrorism” label. Mateen was a Muslim and he had called 911 to pledge his allegiance to the Islamic State. That was enough even for President Obama whose reaction otherwise was restrained and thoughtful. He declared: “we know enough to say that this was an act of terror.” Only of we apply the simplistic standard just noted. Additional evidence later did appear that indicated that the killer had certain sympathies with the acts of the violent jihadis. Still, there is not a scintilla of evidence of his having any association with a group which have pointed him in the direction of committing a mass murder – much less instructing him in where and how to commit it. The picture is a muddled psychological mosaic of a mentally unbalanced person who also hated gays, women, and blacks. Moreover, as a latent (or perhaps active) homosexual who at the same time loathed gays on religious and other grounds, he was a man at war with himself.

Yet, this complex story quickly was placed in the “Islamic terrorist” category, moving our two presidential candidates to call for intensified bombing of Daesh in Syria and Iraq. If we are striving for analytical insight into the man, his motives and the event’s meaning for policy, we should acknowledgement that Orlando is not mainly an issue of Islamic terrorism. To do so, is to fall into the intellectual trap of confusing veneer for the underlying cause, of stressing form of expression at the expense of motor force. Meerton was a psychopath with deep-seated, unresolvable mental problems. Their elements mingled in a lethal cocktail mixing his crisis of sexual identity with jihadist imagery and example. It seems reasonable to speculate that he would have gone on some sort of rampage whether ISS existed or not. We don’t know.

Circumstances created a set of influences that led him down this particular emotional path: the highly publicized ISIS violence phenomenon, and the prominence given the gay revolution. I suspect that one element in the emotional mix was the unconscious impulse to kill the very self (latent homosexual) which another part of him self-loathed. This is classic projection. And that likely was the psychological dynamic that drove him to atrocity and tragedy.

As to the declaration of allegiance to ISIS during the attack - shouldn’t we consider that this most likely is a last desperate claim to some sort of identity and value from a mentally ill man who has just committed an act of violence against anonymous victims? It is more emotionally gratifying to suddenly pronounce himself an Islamist agent than to proclaim the unpalatable truth: I am a mental mess, a non-entity who hasn’t the slightest idea why I am doing such a crazy thing!! I know of no killer anywhere who ever has made that statement despite it’s being close to the truth in most such cases.

What have learned from the “Orlando” episode? Not much. It has not deepened our understanding of transnational terrorist networks since Mateen wasn’t connected to them. It has provided us with no valuable information since this was a solo operation by a mentally ill person. As to the ISIS reference, there is no way to insulate susceptible persons from the influences of violent Islamic fundamentalism in the IT age. They will still be out there even were ISIS, al-Qaeda and all the others to be beaten on the ground. It not within our power to neutralize it no matter how many inter-agency task forces Washington creates to devise counter propaganda.

”Orlando” provides nothing in the way of guidance as how to anticipate and prevent such attacks either. Matten was a mental case – filled with hate generated from within his twisted mind. That hatred was oriented in several directions. The FBI, by happenstance, actually identified the guy and two investigations uncovered no reason to suspect that he might become a mass killer. If there was failure, it was on the part of those who knew him. His wife, especially, should have alerted authorities when he began to prepare his assault.

This narrative does indicate that there are a few things that we might do.

  1. Think seriously about the legal and ethical aspects of generating pressures on family and friends to report persons who are engaged in concrete preparations for terrorist acts

  2. Stop wasting FBI and local police resources on silly entrapment schemes that target losers who are recruited by agents and then arrested so as to meet some sort of implicit quota

  3. Pay due attention to the nefarious effects of American military actions in the greater Middle East whose dire impact on local Muslim populations has been cited by every perpetrator of terrorist acts here and elsewhere in the West as a primary motivation for their violence.

  4. Of course, any terrorist attack of this sort will produce greatly magnified casualties so long as we view individual ownership of war weapons as the cornerstone of American democracy.