Imagining Terrorism: Terrorism and Anti-Terrorism Terrorism, Two Ways of Doing Evil

By Mooney, Jayne; Young, Jock | Social Justice, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Imagining Terrorism: Terrorism and Anti-Terrorism Terrorism, Two Ways of Doing Evil


Mooney, Jayne, Young, Jock, Social Justice


IMPLICIT IN THE IDEA OF TERRORISM IS THE CONTRAST WITH WHAT IS SEEN AS NORMAL patterns of war hinged with the notion that terrorism itself has become the major justification for war. The conventional notion of terrorism carries with it a simple dualism of violence:

The West                   The Other
Rational                   Irrational
Justified                  Hysterical
Focused                    Wanton
Response                   Provocation
Defensive                  Offensive
Generating Security        Inspiring Terror
Modernity                  Anti-Modernity

Such a binary of violence is reminiscent of Edward Said's (2003/1978) notion of Orientalism--and all the more so in the context of the conflicts in the Middle East. In Said's formulation, Orientalism is a discourse about the East that carries with it notions of the chaotic, the violent, the disorderly, the treacherous, and the irrational. It creates an Other in a binary mode that, by contrast, serves to define the West, the Occident. It is an "imaginary geography" wherein "the Orient ... seems to be not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theoretical stage affixed to Europe" (Ibid.: 63). Such a discourse is a legitimation of power; it can be seen as a rationale for intervention, for resolving the "clash of civilizations" (see Huntingdon, 1993). Against this, Said (2003: 331) stresses the imaginary notions of the discourse around Orient and Occident, which "correspond to no stable reality that exists as a natural fact. Moreover, all such geographical designations are an odd combination of the empirical and the imaginative." Instead, "rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow" (Ibid.: xxix).

It is apparent that the dualistic conception of violence carries with it:

1. A denigration/beatification that ignores blurred lines and similarities in the use of violence;

2. A justification for violence on the part of a counterterrorism, even though this may be wildly disproportionate and mis-targeted; and

3. A rationale for military and/or economic intervention that evokes Western modernity as delivering democracy, rationality, and the rule of law.

When one looks at Western definitions of terrorism, suspicions immediately arise as to their objectivity and the distinctive nature of such violence. Two institutions seek to define terrorism: law and social science. A fairly typical legal definition is that of the U.S. Code and the FBI, in which terrorism is "unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives" (FBI, 1998: ii).

Of course, if one removes the word "unlawful," such a definition would easily fit, say, Dresden or Hiroshima in the World War II. The word "unlawful" merely allows a tautology to be perpetrated. Social scientific definitions do not come off any better. In search of the positivistic, the scientific, social scientists eschew words like "unlawful," for they make the pretense of focusing on the "objective," the behavioral: that to be discovered out there, outside of fiat or law. Thus, in their standard text, Murder in America, Holmes and Holmes (1994: 130) define terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence, perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents usually to influence an audience."

What country does not utilize clandestine state agents, commit premeditated politically motivated violence, and in late 20th-century wars inflict violence on noncombatants (see Kaldor, 2003)? What could be more terrifying than an AC-130 gunship at the siege of Falluja going backwards and forwards in what they call a "lazy arc" with its 105-mm cannons blazing? …

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