Magazine article Tikkun

What Is an Act of Terror?

Magazine article Tikkun

What Is an Act of Terror?

Article excerpt

WHEN HEZBOLLAH BEGAN BOMBING ISRAEL this summer, U.S. politicians and pundits were quick to call the action an "act of terror." It was not. It was an "act of war." The difference is not semantic.

What makes a bombing an "act of terror"? Terror is violent and unexpected, but so is war itself. We don't call either the bombing of Hiroshima or the bombing of Pearl Harbor acts of terror, though both were terrifyingly destructive.

War itself is terrifying. Horror, panic, an intense fear of danger to come-that defines the experience of war. What makes "acts of terror" different from "acts of war" is that the danger we fear is unknown. We don't know who has attacked us, or why, or how to find them. They operate outside our known political universe.

Since 9/11, however, the terms "terror" and "war" have been collapsed. The Bush administration pursues a "war on terror," as if the unknown could be brought permanently to bay. Yet even as he suggests terror can be tamed, Bush increasingly populates the realm of terror, casting ordinary enemies of the state as terrorists. We saw this in the lead-up to the current Gulf War, in which Iraq itself was almost never named. Instead, the enemy was the evil, cartoon-like Saddam whose motives were unclear and whose weapons unknown-as if the state of Iraq and its long history did not exist.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the Bush administration was able to persuade Americans to make preemptive war against a sovereign nation-state through the power of the rhetoric of "terror." In the Bush worldview, the "American way of life" is not only the best possible way to live but the only possible way. It is an extraordinarily myopic worldview that suggests those who espouse any other ideological position must simply not know any better. Those who are introduced to the "American way" and yet still reject it are seen as beyond reason. Like Saddam, they operate on the "outside," in an unfathomable and unknowable ideological space. One cannot understand them, cannot negotiate with them, can only attack and hope to destroy them. They are terrorists.

The rhetoric of terrorism supplies the logic for unending war. While we hope for a messianic age "when the world will be one," for the forseeable future, humanity will continue to be divided by radically different understandings of how we must live in the world. …

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