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Notes Toward an Understanding of 'Terrorist'

Are all terrorists alike? You would think so, based on the consensus of opinion in the American press, where terrorists are roundly denounced as 'sick' and 'bankrupt' and, of course, 'evil.' We can agree, I think, on what a terrorist act looks like: civilians, going about their daily business in familiar, 'safe' neighborhoods, subjected without warning to gross, usually explosive violence that kills or injures them or their loved ones (even extensive property damage seems incidental compared to such personal catastrophe). From the victims' perspective, it would seem not to matter much whether the perpetrator is a disaffected citizen like Timothy McVeigh or a disaffected foreigner like Mohammed Atta, but the recent wave of suicide bombings in Israel has highlighted a distinction - a variety of terrorist intents - and, behind it, a problem of democracy. Working out the possibility that all terrorists might not be alike, I've stumbled on another question: whether their universal demonizing by editors and opinion writers doesn't betray an unwillingness to evaluate the criminality of any given act of terrorism - a refusal to admit that there might be degrees of criminality - lest criminal intent vanish altogether into the fog of war.

The conduct of war remains, necessarily, largely outside civil jurisdiction, whether local, national, or international. There are general agreements, such as the Geneva Convention, that govern aspects of warfare, or at least attempt to impose a humanistic restraint on a potentially monstrous undertaking. Prisoners must be treated in a certain way, and certain weapons are not to be used. These conventions would mean absolutely nothing to a frankly offensive power, but they draw strength from the fact that almost all belligerents hide behind the argument of self-defense. To invoke justification for fighting back is to surrender to conventional jurisdiction - and so the forms are observed. Aside from U.N. resolutions, I am not aware of any conventions that outlaw terrorist acts specifically, but there appears to be an agreement (among the pundits, I mean) that terrorism so absolutely unacceptable that any power resorting to it forfeits the right to sovereign recognition. How much of this understanding is supported by any kind of international law, again, I don't know, but I doubt that much of it is. I raise the matter of conventional restraints only to suggest that the location of terrorism on the scale of tension between ideas of justifiable war and ideas of crimes against humanity is clear only to wishful thinkers. 

The more interesting problem that terrorism highlights for me is the tension between power and fellowship in a democracy. To what extent may the inhabitants of a particular place be forced to recognize their own subjection to a democratic sovereignty? In the old days, the question didn't come up, because political life was not democratic and might made right. A power's ability to control a territory, over a period of time, constituted sufficient title. After 1789, however, sovereignty came to be vested in ideas of 'the people,' and it was not long before nationalist uprisings frayed the polyglot empires of Central Europe. In America, the secession of the Southern States was reversed by the military superiority of North, but this display of might was, and has ever since been, prettied up with talk of 'preserving the Union,' as though the desire of certain States to remain bonded to the others was per se more intrinsically valid than the desire of those others to break away. (I myself have grave questions about the validity of any union from which there is no escape.) After the Great War, the rather vaporous idea of national self-determination was used to redraw the map of Europe, but that map was soon out of date, and indeed it is only in the past decade that Europe's borders have meaningfully conformed to it. Much of the Twentieth Century's misery sprang from conflicts questioning democratic sovereignty, but sadly very little in the way of principles, of rules of the game, seems to have been developed. The liberal democracies of the West, for all their bloody experience, must watch the conflict between Israel and Palestine without being able to say anything truly authoritative. 

I write 'Palestine' there because I recognize the right of Palestinians to repudiate the sovereign claims of a nation that would not treat them as fellows even if the Palestinians wished it. Indeed, the most hard-headed argument currently voiced within Israel itself for establishing an independent Palestinian state is based on the likelihood that the Palestinians of the occupied territories, together with the (fewer) Palestinians already resident in Israel, will soon outnumber the Jews for whom Israel was to have been a safe haven. If this happens, it will, it is said, force Israeli Jews to decide between democracy and some kind of theocracy. When and if Israel becomes a theocracy, then the rights of Palestinian protestors will be foreclosed. But so long as it remains a democracy, the question of fellowship among its residents - to introduce the term 'citizens' here is to beg the question - will be lively and difficult. 

In an age that honors 'diversity,' it is sobering to reflect on the Napoleonic solution to regional divisions within France. Napoleon did not attempt to make everyone in his vast Empire speak French, but he did impose a singular notion of 'Frenchness,' through law, language, and education, upon the residents of what is now called France - upon, one is tempted to note, what is now called France precisely because of Napoleon's imposition. For the sake of peace and saved lives, I should like to know what so powerful a figure could accomplish in Northern Ireland, where territorial partitioning appears to be unrealistic. But the Napoleonic solution could not be more deeply undemocratic. 

Another matter of interest remains. What makes terrorism most revolting, it's unfailingly pointed out, is its infliction upon 'innocent civilians. The history of civilian engagement and suffering in warfare is a long and complicated one, but from our perspective it would appear that, until the American Civil War, fighting armies avoided populated areas, and that the reversal of this trend since 1865 is one of great reasons for bemoaning the monstrosity of modern times. But by 1865 the relation (at least in America) between armies and civilians had changed utterly. Before the democratic revolutions, armies were bodies under the command of monarchs, and civilians had a recognized right to expect their rulers to protect them from armies. In a democracy, however, sovereignty lies with civilians themselves, and in the current wave of terrorism we see a continuing recognition of the fact that modern democratic governments reflect the choice of at least a majority of their citizens. If that is so, and the idea of majority rule holds, then who is fair game in war if not a civilian? Officials elected to govern a democracy may enjoy the sovereign monopoly on force, but they do not enjoy a similar monopoly on authority. Responsibility for vesting officials with power remains with the citizenry.

It is often argued that terrorism must be resisted always and everywhere because to capitulate to it in any way (by granting the concessions sought by its ideologies) is to compromise, fatally, the sovereignty of the state, but it is no less circular to argue that popular sovereignty cannot be imposed upon the unwilling. (April 2002)

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