John Keane | ‘That word terrorism…’, Pearls and Irritations (Canberra), January 13, 2024
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‘That word terrorism…’, Pearls and Irritations (Canberra), January 13, 2024

  |   War, Violence, Fear   |   No comment

The term terrorism has become a fighting word in the arsenal of a declining world empire known as the United States of America. Its leaders’ endless talk of terrorism is in reality a desperate swansong, an indicator of the downfall of the United States as a global empire, its slow but irreversible disappearance from the headlines of world history, or so it seems to me.

If there was a dictionary of poisonous political terms, the word terrorism would surely be listed within its pages. It’s definitely near the top of my shortlist of venomous political words which, given half a chance, I’d choose to lampoon, pull apart and banish to the margins of public life. The reasons for my loathing of the word aren’t personal. It’s true that recently I was falsely accused of being a public supporter of a ‘terrorist organisation’ , and that a lecture I delivered remotely in Berlin last month was broken up by police, who arrested and charged twenty students, some of them deemed to be ‘terrorists’ because they were wearing black-and-white Palestinian kefiyyehs, or carrying Palestinian flags. The volume of hate mail I receive has lately spiked, but while none of this monkey business has endeared me to the word, the reasons why public usages of the term ‘terrorism’ should be challenged are profoundly political. They have to do with the historical fact that the term is nowadays much more than a weasel word. It has become an accomplice of arbitrary power, a word rendered venomous by governments using it to enact anti-terror laws, win followers, save their own skins, or crush their targeted opponents using brutal armed force.

The normalisation of the language of terrorism during recent decades has been remarkable. Its popularity among elites is especially striking. With the help of opinion polls and focus groups, the word slides off the tongues and keyboards of politicians, government spokespersons and journalists, often to the point where talk of terrorism functions as a quasi-religious catechism, a mantra whose constant repetition among believers is deemed a blessing.

The vogue was given a big boost by the events of 9/11. A week after attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 civilians and injured thousands more, leaving America in a state of fear, President George W. Bush stood before a joint session of Congress, where he was greeted by loud applause for saying that the world now faced a choice of fundamental importance. ‘Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.’ He declared a ‘war on terror’ that would ‘not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.’

The word has since come to have multiplex qualities. Terrorism functions as a floating signifier lacking a precise referent. It’s a term that has no fixed sense, a word so vague and void of meaning that different governments give it different connotations in different contexts. Listen to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz: ‘We condemn the terrorists and we say very clearly, Israel has the right under international law to defend its citizens against such acts of barbarism.’ He goes on to draw the conclusion that ‘there is only one place for Germany, the place, side by side with Israel. This is what we mean when we say the security of Israel is Germany’s raison d’etre.’ . Meanwhile, in Germany’s other half, PM Netanyahu tells a cabinet meeting that every method will be used to prove that ‘no terrorist is immune’. Which is why (according to Haaretz) the commander of a reserve brigade of the IDF Armored Corps recently said with impunity that wherever his troops operate in Gaza they ‘encounter terrorism in almost every home, in hospitals and schools’.

Common sense and history

Statements of this kind are harbingers of genocidal intent but noteworthy is the way, with the help of lazy churnalists inclined to borrow headlines and endlessly repeat the catechism, the word terrorism is now integral to the prevailing common sense of Western public life. We find ourselves in the world of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the mantra ‘terrorism is terrorism’ operates as a weaponised tautology in the arsenal of arbitrary state power.

One problem with this tautology, which supposedly captures the evil ‘reality’ of terrorism, is the way it ignores the remarkable history of significant shifts of meaning in usages of the word. Etymologists remind us that the English word comes from the French of the 1790s, when terrorisme was the name used by Tom Paine who narrowly escaped execution by the guillotine during the Reign of Terror) and other writers to describe and denounce the systematic use by Robespierre’s revolutionaries to govern through fear and state violence ‘to the worst effect.’ The family of words comprising terrorism and terrorist (from the old French terreur borrowed from the Latin terror, great fear, dread, from terrēre, to fill with fear, to frighten, terrify) was critical. These words were first used to call into question states which waved swords over the heads of their fearful subjects to force them to bow down to their dictates.

Later, during the 19th century, in the Atlantic region, a semantic switch happened: the words terrorism, terrorist and terrorise (a neologism from the 1820s) came to be used by rich and powerful monarchists and supporters of bourgeois parliaments to denounce groups like the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) in Russia and the Haymarket anarchists in the US who used rifles, Molotov cocktails, home-made bombs and assassinations to disobey the reigning state institutions. The shift of meaning is evident for instance in Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Devils and other writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which double as detailed studies of how individuals gripped by high-minded principles often seek their fulfilment through acts of fearful violence. In a post-Christian world, Dostoyevsky thought, individuals’ privately chosen path to earthly heaven easily slides towards a living public hell of terrorist violence.

During most of the twentieth century, the organised use of fear by governments to rule over people was called by other names – despotism, communism, dictatorship, totalitarianism, tyranny, fascism – that were contrasted with the positives of ‘civilisation’, ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Except to denounce Bolshevism, or Al Capone-style gangsterism, the limited usage or non-use of the word terrorism were the norm. So far as I am aware, the US firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9-10 March 1945 – the most violent bombing raid in world history, when over 300 B-29s dropped cluster bombs that killed 100,000 people and left more than a million homeless – or the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few months later weren’t typically described by contemporaries as acts of terrorism. ‘Bombs Make Tokyo Squeal’ was the headline of Lord Beaverbrook’s Sunday Express; ‘Fire Bombs Wipe Out Heart of Capital’, said the Chicago Daily Tribune; ‘Tokyo Bombed, Japs Say; Admit Damage Was Heavy’ ran the headline of the Minneapolis Morning Tribune.

The word terrorism was similarly absent in reports of the US carpet bombing, enforced resettlement, napalming and general slaughter of civilians in Indochina during the 1960s and 1970s. Casual but infrequent usages of the word remained the norm. But then along came the Tupamaros, Brigate Rosse, Baader-Meinhof, ETA, the Weathermen, the IRA and Fatah, groups committed to underground guerilla attacks on military installations, corporate tycoons, judges and corrupt politicians, often using indiscriminate violence designed to spread fear among citizens and to interrupt life-as-usual in what was variously called a ‘shit society’ or a ‘fascist police state’. Frightened politicians and brazen journalists on the hunt for ears and eyeballs responded with denunciations of ‘terrorists’ and clampdowns. Suddenly the world felt as if it had been catapulted forwards into a panic-stricken dystopia – a post-democratic universe of emergency rule backed up by total surveillance, police raids, tanks and fighter jets, and armed police on the streets. It’s the world we’re now living in.

Fear and Politics

This brief history of the term terrorism wouldn’t be complete, or convincing, without saying a few words about its ‘truth’, and its faux innocence.

The truth is that the word terrorism reminds us of the profoundly anti-democratic effects of fear in political life. Fear can indeed give people wings, providing them with courage to do what once seemed impossible. But as I have written elsewhere fear more often eats the souls of citizens. Terrorised people grow impatient with democracy. They seek shelter and reassurance in the arms of dictatorial rule led by strong men (almost always they are) promising redemption through law and order backed by armed force.

It’s said that power corrupts, but so does fear generated by unexpected violence. Rulers afraid of losing power do everything to save their skins; for their part, fearful citizens easily embrace their directives. That’s exactly what happened in the United States during the weeks following the 9/11 death squad attacks. Millions of fear-struck citizens fell silent. They stayed at home. Fighter jets scrambled daily over key cities on ‘homeland defence’ missions. The capital city’s airport remained closed. Security was tight at sporting events, and in and around all government buildings. Reports whizzed through the media of bio-chemical attacks. Sales of antibiotics, bottled water, and canned goods were brisk. So were purchases of bullet-proof vests and gas marks, guns and ammunition.

Fear through violence indeed has terrifying effects, but the trouble is that the ‘truth’ inside the word terrorism comes wrapped in fraudulent deceptions that are deeply destructive of democracy’s spirit and substance. The word used to describe and denounce fear isn’t innocent. For several reasons that should be more or less obvious, but often aren’t, we should fear this terrible word terrorism.

For a start, it’s a brain-dulling opioid, a producer of public silence about other types of violence. In language, as in life more generally, silence isn’t just what is left unsaid. Silence is within words. We can see the silencing effect of the word terrorism in episodes of gun violence in the United States. When trigger happy, white gunmen murder citizens and fling whole communities into a state of deep fear – as happened recently in the city of Perry, Iowa – the mayhem isn’t called ‘terrorism’. More anodyne words are used by officials and reporters. A ‘gunman’ kills and injures innocent ‘victims’. Some innocents are reported to be in critical condition; their names are withheld. In press conferences, ‘law enforcement officials’ say the gunman acted ‘alone’. They confirm that there is ‘no known motive’ for the attack.

There’s a second reason why the word terrorism should frighten us. Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and especially following the events of 9/11 and the July 2005 London bombings – which I experienced at very close range – the name has become a venomous signifier deployed by governments and journalists in the West to target and demonise brown people of the Muslim faith who doubt and challenge the double standards and deepest prejudices of the West, and do so by embracing Islam and its precepts of justice, equity and compassion. For many hundreds of millions of Muslims world-wide, the word terrorism is terrifying. Terrorism is a gun in the never-ending, American-led ‘war on terror’. Terrorism means suspicion, prejudice and hatred of Muslims. Dragnet surveillance. Drone attacks. B1-B air strikes that kill and maim innocent civilians. Torture and humiliation at Guantanamo- and Abu Ghraib-style concentration camps. Support for Narendra Modi’s war on Indian Muslims, brutal dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and Israeli genocide in Gaza and the West Bank.

In his comedy film Borat (2006), the British actor Sacha Baron Cohen summarises this dynamic in just a few biting words: the permanent war on terror we are experiencing – yesterday ISIS, today Hamas – is more like a ‘war of terror, an all-out war targeted at all Muslims and their supporters, regardless of whether they live in Gaza or Cairo or Kabul, or Mumbai, Dallas, Copenhagen, Berlin or Sydney.

An empire in decline

Here we come to the most surprising, but least obvious, reason why terrorism should be put in the book of toxic political terms. Put simply, the term terrorism is calling into question its own credibility because it has become a fighting word in the arsenal of a declining world empire known as the United States of America.

In a forthcoming book called China’s Galaxy Empire , a study of China’s military, economic, technological and political outflanking of the United States, I show that empires handle their decline in different ways. Some (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Austria) end up going quietly, if grumpily. Russia and Britain are contemporary examples of faded empires that do the opposite. They try to ignore, deny or resist their historical fate. Judged historically, these former empires don’t go quietly. They kick and scream, make big fusses, resist their decline militarily, drugging themselves on fighting words like terrorism designed to reassure both their rulers and citizens of their own economic, geo-political and moral significance.

That’s what’s happening today with the United States. During the past generation, the United States established the cross-border rules in vital matters ranging from financial regulations, trade agreements and styles of consumption to military interventions in the name of ‘human rights’ and ‘liberal democracy’. From its 18th-century beginnings, it has fought hundreds of wars and today spends more on its military apparatus annually than the next ten countries combined, with around 800 military bases located in more than 75 countries and territories abroad. But measured in terms of such factors as domestic social stability, life expectancy and happiness of its citizens, global economic clout and cultural reputation, the United States is no longer what it was. It is an empire in retreat. It no longer wins wars, which in a strangely ironic and oddly serendipitous way is good news for those who find the word terrorism nauseating, or frightening. Its leaders’ talk of terrorism is in reality a desperate swansong, an indicator of the downfall of the United States as a global empire, its slow but irreversible disappearance from the headlines of world history, or so it seems to me.

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