What the Hell Is Terrorism?-open thread

September 18, 2007

Proposed by Claudia Ciobanu

“Germany’s justice minister plans to extend the country’s anti-terror laws. In the future, preparing an attack or receiving explicit training for a violent act will be punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

<As opposed to the Red Army Faction, Islamic offenders are often active without any firm connection to a hierarchically based group,> said a statement of the ministry of justice which explained the need for passing new terror legislation.

According to the proposal of the justice minister, preparing a terrorist act includes acquiring weapons, chemicals or other substances in order to commit a violent offense.

The second proposal in the new legislation would criminalize publishing or acquiring instructions for attacks of bombs, for example, via the internet. If the instructions were deemed to motivate others to commit attacks, the crime would carry a prison sentence of up to three years in prison.”

Deutsche Welle, Tuesday, 18 September

Opponents of the minister, both within and outside the coalition cabinet, have criticized the minister for trying to create an unfounded sense of panic among the population, by attempting to persude Germans there is an “imminent terrorist threat” hanging over their heads. Perfects grounds for increasing securitization, just like in the US and UK, and for claiming the political gains of having safeguarded the country.

This proposal from the German minister came in a day when the hottest topic was the recent comments made by the French foreign ministerKouchner: he warned that, if economic sanctions do not persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program, the world would be faced with a “catastrophic choice” between “an Iranian bomb or the bombardment of Iran.”

In the French case, the same logic is applied: there is a threat, defined by politicians (terrorists, rogue states, rogue states sheltering terrorists) to the good old European or American ways; but the tough, brave leaders of the country (or an alliance of brave leaders of countries in the Western world) will show their teeth and make everyone safe again.

All this creates fear. And of what? How come we ended up thinking Iran is the worst place in the world? How come we can no longer say the word terrorism without saying Islam as well? Was RAF terrorist? Are the Palestinians terrorists? What, finally, is this terrorism? Isn’t the vagueness of the concept, coroborated with the immensity of actions done in the name of fighting it, a bit scary?

Just a bunch of questions for all of us, citizens of “democracies”…

To help, a bit of Edward Said, as I happen to be reading him at the moment:

“I think terrorism is a -ism we should just get rid of, but not without carefully deconstructing it beforehand. The use of the word terrorism is usually unfocused, it usually has all kinds of implicit validations of one’s own brand of violence, it’s highly selective.

I prefer to use the word violence, which allows for notions of different types of violence.

Terrorism should be seen in the context of politics of identity. These emanate out of the various identitarian forces in the nationalist world where patriotism, to be seen for example in the reinforcement of the curriculum in America of all this about <Western values>, <Judaeo-Christian values>, are part of the economy that creates the limitlessly expanding discourse of terrorism, by which things <we> do not like are identified with terrorism.” (1998)

By the way, has anyone read “Terrorist” by John Updike? Better not…


  1. The biggest difference between terrorism and other forms of violence is that terrorism targets civilians. The groups using terrorism know, that they are too weak to win a fight with the enemy in the open and therefore they target civilians though trying to build enough pressure to achieve their aim or at least gain more support from their own community.

    Are the Palestinians terrorists? As a whole not. But of course there are a lot of terrorist groups in Palestine. Is Hamas a terrorist organisation. Yes and no. Yes, they have used terrorist attacks but not exclusively. Life is seldom black and white.

    You write, that ‘our’ politicians create fear. Which is also simplistic. Of course there are some politicians who use the threat from Islam to get more votes. But on the other hand, it can not be denied, that there are Islamic groups who are willing to attack us (the European public) and some already have.

  2. I suppose it is not useful or easy to define terrorism. Still the mainstream understanding of it is far from what Ian Norman seems to believe. There is not much nobility in the concept as such. Its vagueness and dominant presence in the discourses of mediocre politicians (see J. Bush) have in a great extent distorted any real essence in it.

    Since Clausewitz defined his total war civilians have always been in the center of warfare. Even more, despite the inconvenience that comparisons create, modernity has offered more efficient ways to wipe out generations of people without exploding one single bomb. Keep in mind the Food for Oil program in Iraq for an example.

    Now the real use of terrorism today is to distinguish between acceptable violence or not.
    Big regular western armies who invade middle eastern quasi states do not terrorize, they kill in the name of virtues like democracy and the rest.
    Small irregular groups who explode hand made devices in European capitals are terrorists. It is difficult not to notice that the Islamic element is central in defining the terrorist or not nature of a violent act.

    It is also very interesting to think how terms like resistance or retaliation have disappeared from this kind of debates long ago. No connection between legitimate violence and terrorist attacks exists therefore. The first is a product of reason, the second a blind act. Now that I think about it, and since Said made it in the conversation, it is also impossible not to notice the orientalistic nature of the concept as well.

    I may sound ironic but i think the following is a good description of defining what is terrorism and what is not.
    The explosion of a bomb is terrorism, many thousands is statistics.

  3. illustrating a strategy to persuade also the public in the middle east, not only that in the u.s. and europe, that what the u.s. and its allies are doing at the moment is fighting a just war against terrorism-the strategy, naturally, includes cultural tools of persuasion

    “Scheunemann referenced the lack of commitment to the war of ideas by noting that only three U.S. institutions were involved in the “long war” on terror — the Defence Department, the State Department, and limited involvement by the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. He called for the further involvement of the Department of Commerce, Department of Education and other institutions.” (this was said during a conference of the Brookings Institution)

    “The Long Propaganda War” by Ali Gharib

  4. apostolisfotiadi writes, that “it is not useful or easy to define terrorism”. Still this was the question of Claudia Ciobano and even the title of her article.
    I do believe, it is not only useful, it is necessary to distinguish between terrorism and other acts of violence. It might not be very easy in every case, but in law, facts are often disputed (sorry, here my not being native English speaking hampers me).
    For some acts of violence, it can disputed, if the label terror is correct or not, but others and I believe most, can be labelled easily.
    According to wikipedia the key criterias are violence, fear, political goal, targeting of non-combatants and therefore illegitimacy.
    I agree, that terror and terrorism has been used a lot; sometimes just simplifying sometimes like anti-Semitism it is used as a label to quiet opposition.
    apostolisfotiadi simplifies a lot. He writes that according to Clausewitz civilians are the centre of warfare as if Clausewitz suggested mass slaughter to win a war.
    He also suggested, the Food for Oil program was a tool of the UN to kill as many Iraqis as possible. The idea behind the Food for Oil program was to allow Iraq to sell Oil and with the revenue buy food and medicine. Not weapons as Saddam Hussein probably would have. That it failed does not mean, that the intentions were bad or that the aim was unrealistic. It was just bad government on the UN and Iraqi side.
    I am not saying, that I agree with GWB nor think the situation in Iraq has changed for the better. But a lot of critics of the US seem to forget, that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and has used WMD against his own people. And that Osama Bin Laden has attacked the West more than once and will continue to do so till he dies. And that there are Muslim terrorists attacking civilians in New York, Madrid, London and in many other places.
    I can understand, that there are a lot of people, who say, the US never should have invaded Iraq. Or who say, they have invaded Iraq, but should leave a.s.a.p. But what I don’t understand is when these same people who protest when Iraqi civilians die, rejoice in terrorist attacks in Europe or US.
    In Iraq, a civil war is happening or at least is at the very verge of happening. If the US leave, there will be further attacks between Shiites, Sunni and Kurds. The Shiites as the largest group will win with the support of Iran whilst Saudi Arabia will try to support the Sunnis and Turkey will try to take control of the north of Iraq.
    Any talk of all problems going away, just because the US go, is nonsense.
    apostolisfotiadi misses further points. On the one hand, we know that there are also non Muslim terrorist organisations such as IRA, RAF and ETA in Europe, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. At least the first four are no real threat anymore. So the only real danger comes from Muslim terrorist groups.
    Once again, terrorism is not just a word for Muslim freedom fighters. Only a minority of the acts of violence from Iraqi/Muslim fighters in Iraq is directed against the US invasion force and its allies. And the situation before the US led invasion was not as in paradise. Nor were the differences between Shiites and Sunnis caused by the US invasion.
    Democracy and freedom of Speech as well as other Human rights are worth fighting for. Even killing for.

  5. “The economy of war offers confortable nests for tens of thousands of bureaucrats with or without a military uniform, who go every day to the office in order to build nuclear weapons and to plan a nuclear war. Millions of workers whose jobs depend on the system of nuclear terrorism. Scientists and engineers hired to discover that ultimate technological miracle that could ensure total safety. Contractors that will not give up their easily acquired profits. Warrior intellectuals who sell threats and bless wars.”

    A comment by Richard Barnet, made in 1981, in the age of the Cold War.

    Sounds familiar and points out that this war on terror is not only a consciously directed foreign policy strategy, but also the creator of a self -perpetuating machine, comprising individuals who, wanting to fight for their own survival, will find that the way to do that is to keep the war going.
    Unfortunately, we still see our own survival as the most important value, undisputable, even if it has to be done at the expense of the survival of the others…
    And this applies not only to those employed by the war industry, but also to some of the rest of us.

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