Swans Commentary » swans.com January 31, 2005  



Terrorism Upgraded To Normality
Walter Laqueur Two


by Milo Clark





(Swans - January 31, 2005)  Historian Walter Laqueur (1) has studied terrorism for decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was somewhat dismissive of the perils represented by terrorism as he then saw it manifested. His 1985 book, A World of Secrets, The Uses and Limits of Intelligence, barely uses the word. In 344 pages of text, terrorism is mentioned in passing only five times. His more recent works from the late 1990s and early 2000s pick up on the current interest and seek to refine perspectives. Mostly, his distinctions seem relevant.

Historically, terrorism, however named or defined in context, tended to be political or religious. Where religion and politics combined as in various eras of the Roman Catholic church, targets could be both political and religious. Victims tended to be people prominent either politically or religiously. Uninvolved or innocent people were little targeted, if at all. Assassinations were the primary vehicle.

A significant part of defining terrorism is perspective or point of view. Targets tend to see enemies as terrorists. Those intending to damage targets see themselves in terms rarely employing the word "terrorist." Accordingly, there are as many definitions of terror, terrorism and terrorists are there are those needing to characterize enemies as "other."

Terrorism was once associated with revolution in important ways. Whether that distinction remains relevant may now be open to question.

A distinction of more recent quality defines terrorism as attacks with major damage and death primarily confined to innocent or otherwise uninvolved people. Again, perspective and point of view interject themselves. Folks who blow up buildings inflicting damage and death in places such as Oklahoma City, New York City or Washington DC are in one category. People who blow up buildings inflicting damage and death in places like Kabul, Afghanistan, Baghdad, Mosul or Fallujah in Iraq fall into other categories. People who blow up buildings inflicting damage and death in Gaza, Jerusalem or Ramallah are in yet others. Wander around the world and people who blow up buildings inflicting damage and death wherever, fall into still more categories. Notice the plural use.

As historian John Lukacs has observed, "People do not have ideas, they choose them." Laqueur attempts to track the simple minded explanations of terrorism in present context down more complex paths.

Yet, no general analysis will lead to convincing "causes" for terrorism. The lists of suggestions and their assumed causal factors are very much in the eyes of the beholders. What to one may hold worth as cause, examined more closely will disclose broad roots across vast socio-economic, political and religious similarities and differences. The commonalities cited by pundits yield to sharp contrasts when viewed against the backdrops of Asia, Africa, Americas, mid- and far-East.

A common explanation has been poverty in all its manifestations. Now we add religious fanaticisms. And fanaticisms it must be since terrorism in its many manifestations is not limited to any particular or limited set of chosen ideas. In Wilhelm Reich's terms, anyone attempting to force others to accept their points of view, their choices, their lifestyles through force rather than persuasion may easily move into acts damaging and killing others. Today, such damaging and killing may fit media definitions of terrorism as long as "others" are doing it rather than "us."

Religious fundamentalisms may no longer fit the generalizations of seeking political revolutions. Rather, to generalize with faintness of heart, religious fundamentalists may be as interested or more interested in imposing theocratic forms on existing political structures. America's most evangelical Christian fundamentalists seem little interested in imposing other economic models than capitalism. To them, a flash of Janet Jackson's breast is more disturbing than pictures of "others" being tortured. First Amendment peril is easily ignored and pushed aside.

Laqueur does identify differences in wealth as ". . .not conducive to social and political peace." While he doesn't focus on this issue, pauperization, downgrading of perceived actualities, may be an accelerator. By accelerator, I mean some factor which enters into awareness strongly enough to trigger individual and group actions and reactions.

Using the guise of a War on Terror, the once United States of America under present direction moves formerly covert actions such as torture to more overt areas. The chiseling at Human Rights of both "Us" and "Them" is framed as Patriotism in action. "Them" is expanded to encompass some formerly "Us."

Whatever the dependent cycles underlying terrorist outbreaks may be, their rhythms are largely undiscoverable in the main. Quirks of human behavior and psychology may be as good a framework as any.

In Laqueur's present view, "Terrorism has been on the international agenda for a long time, but until recently it was relegated to a lowly place . . . . In any case, never threatened all countries in an equal measure. This has now changed. . . ."

[compared to war] Terrorism is relatively cheap and will be with us for as long as anyone can envision, even if not always at the same frequence and intensity. Much like other "wars" declared by politicians in recent decades, Poverty, Drugs and now Terror; promise to be with us and to inspire policies of fear and containment as well as budget justifications.

As terrorism is not new in any meaningful sense, only the levels of attention, political expediency and terminology are changed.

Dimension has new qualities, though. The threat or actuality of large scale weaponry acquired as spin-off from major power investments therein may be actual. However, in actuality also, there is no terrorism in a singular sense. No one "enemy" can be separated other than through questionable processes. There are multiple versions from Ireland to Kashmir with many, many way stations in between.

Laqueur's 2003 book, No End to War, Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, upgrades our situation. Declaring war on terrorism provides an endless rationale for fear and containment. The Security State, identified as the successor to governance in the once United States of America, may be classed by others as the Terrorist State. In any case, there is security within the administration's classification of "Us," no matter how much that classification is narrowed in fact.

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1.  For purposes of this series of commentaries, I am using five Laqueur books ranging in time from the last 1970s to early 2000s as sources for direction, commentary and paraphrase:

No End to War, Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, Walter Laqueur, Continuum, N.Y. , 2003, ISBN 0-8264-1435-4.

Fascism; Past, Present, Future, Walter Laqueur, Oxford University Press, N. Y., 1996, ISBN 0-19-509245-7.

The Dream that Failed, Reflections on the Soviet Union, Walter Laqueur, Oxford University Press, N. Y. 1994, ISBN 0-19-508978-2.

A World of Secrets, The Uses and Limits of Intelligence, Walter Laqueur, The Twentieth Century Fund, N. Y., 1985, ISBN 0-465-09237-3.

The Human Rights Reader, Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin, editors, Meridian, N. Y., 1979, 1989, 1990, no ISBN.  (back)


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This Edition's Internal Links

America Has Left The Building... Part II - by Phil Rockstroh & John Steppling

The Upside Down - Walter Laqueur One - by Milo Clark

Excessive Demands Will Exceed Capabilities - by Philip Greenspan

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Johnny Carson - by John Steppling

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Blips #11 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

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Published January 31, 2005