Mountain Sun

Mountain Sun

Monday, September 13, 2010

American Terrorism

One of the big advantages terrorism and terrorists enjoy is our collective failure to think clearly about terror--our seeming inability to clearly define what these things are.  While some aspects of terror seem fairly clear and widely held, other aspects see less agreement.  Perhaps one of the most widely accepted hallmarks of terrorism is that terrorist acts always have two targets, in which the immediate victim is actually of secondary importance: 

"Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, ... whereby...the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators" (Schmid and Jongman 1988).
Or consider this:

The purpose of terrorism is to exploit the media in order to achieve maximum attainable publicity as an amplifying force multiplier in order to influence the targeted audience(s) in order to reach short- and midterm political goals and/or desired long-term end states.

Terrorists do not primarily aim at the physical, but on the strategy that primarily relies on the symbolic strength of the act. The use of terror serves not primarily the purposes of fighting, injuring or destroying the opponent. Rather, its primary purpose lies in the conveying of messages to the target audience(s). Terrorists perpetrate their acts without regard for war fighting conventions. The symbolism originating from terrorist acts and media marketing thereof is intended to address the public, to use them as a vehicle and a communication channel to influence the political representatives/decision makers and other target audiences.

Considering the above, the "why" of terrorism--its intended purpose--appears to have wide or even universal agreement.  But other aspects of the definition, dealing with "who" terrorists are, and "how" they attack, find less agreement.  For example, some terrorism definitions (such as that used by the FBI) require that a violent act be perpetrated against innocent civilians, while other standards are more extensive and accept not just actual violence but also symbolic violence, or acts that threaten future violence.  

Another point of disagreement centers on the "who" of terrorism, in that some definitions exclude individual actors, or others might exclude state actors.  An example of the latter case was related by former US Ambassador Edward Peck to Democracy Now:

"1985, when I was the Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism, they asked us—this is a Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism; I was the Deputy Director of the working group—they asked us to come up with a definition of terrorism that could be used throughout the government. We produced about six, and each and every case, they were rejected, because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities.

After the task force concluded its work, Congress got into it, and you can google into U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2331, and read the U.S. definition of terrorism. And one of them in here says—one of the terms, "international terrorism," means "activities that," I quote, "appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping."

Yes, well, certainly, you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours is one of them. Israel is another. And so, the terrorist, of course, is in the eye of the beholder."

Peck's story is almost comical, depicting our own government's Homer Simpson-like attempt to clearly define terrorism--only to find ourselves included in every workable definition of the word.  Perhaps this explains how our current working definitions--the varying and somewhat contradictory assortment used by our own federal agencies and armed forces--are such a mishmash.  I guess it's inevitable that we won't ever come up with a sound, comprehensive and useful definition of terrorism if by doing so we're putting the finishing strokes on our own self-portrait.  

So, given our current conceptual difficulties, how are we to view the following?

Burned Quran Smeared with Feces found at East Lansing Mosque

BY Steve Pardo / The Detroit News

A burned Quran was found at a mosque in East Lansing on Saturday, prompting the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to ask the FBI to investigate.

CAIR-MI reports that officials of the Islamic Center of East Lansing say vandals left a burned Quran at the front entrance of the mosque and scattered pages in the street nearby.   Torn pages of the Quran appeared to be smeared with feces, CAIR officials said.
or this?

KPD, FBI Investigating Shot and Burned Quran left at Knoxville Mosque

The vandalized Quran was discovered about noon Sunday on the sidewalk outside the Annoor Mosque, 100 13th St., according to a police report filed by Nadeem Siddiqi. Siddiqi is a board member of the Muslim Community of Knoxville.

A member of the mosque found the Quran during morning prayers, according to the report.

Siddiqi said the book appeared "like it had not been used a whole lot." The burned book also contained several holes. "It was only partially burned," Siddiqi said. "It looked like someone had shot it with a shotgun."

I'd suggest that rather than arguing about the identity of the perpetrators and whether they can be considered terrorists, or whether the acts described above constitute actual violence or just symbolic violence--and thus may or may not be considered "terrorism", we focus instead on the intent of these actions.  Their purpose.  And that purpose is described perfectly in the literature defining terrorism, including the passage cited at the top of this piece:
Terrorists do not primarily aim at the physical, but on the strategy that primarily relies on the symbolic strength of the act. The use of terror serves not primarily the purposes of fighting, injuring or destroying the opponent. Rather, its primary purpose lies in the conveying of messages to the target audience(s).

I don't know if these and other acts of widespread terror being perpetrated against mosques and American Muslim communities will be recorded officially as "terrorism" or not.   Given the disarray in our thinking about terrorism, they likely won't be. 

But as the old judge said, quibble all you wish with definitions--I know it when I see it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment