Monday, June 4, 2012

Terrorism and Playing the Game

What is terrorism?

In the dictionary sense, perhaps "the use of violence and threats to intimidate and coerce, usually for political purposes." Another definition might be the use of violence to create an atmosphere of fear to further political goals. The argument over a precise definition continues. But in this post I don't want to talk about what kind of act can be labelled terrorism, but about what other labels can given to acts which have been labelled terrorism.

Please now imagine a historical act which you believe to be an act of terrorism.

What you saw in your mind was probably the consequences of terrorism, the scene after the act was complete, painted with emotional reactions as well as visual: pain, loss, anguish, fear, anger. Perhaps there was dust, or smoke, or fire, or only a human being now dead when previously they were alive. What is important is the emotional response.

It is quite possible you were imagining the September Eleven attacks upon the United States, which I will be using as my chief example. What I wish to argue from this example is that one of the main reasons why you find terrorism objectionable is not the death or destruction but the fact that the terrorist does not play by the rules. I mean by this the rules of safety: if you join the armed forces you may die in warfare, but ordinary citizens do not die in war. The fact that this has been true of only a handful of conflicts very recently in history in very specific circumstances does not diminish the fact that it is the rule in which people believe. And it is a very pleasant belief.

One reason for the strong emotional response which terrorists elicit is that they do not play by the rules. Acts of terrorism show that the accepted rules are not rules at all. They are temporary conventions which are sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected. Ordinary citizens often die in war. And what is more, they often die in wars which have not been declared by their own side, or even by the other side - there may not even be a readily identifiable 'other side' at all. The conflict which causes death may be entirely incomprehensible, even to a careful observer.

This is not because terrorists are playing a different game to armies. In fact, they are playing the same game. They are pursuing political goals through violence. What they are doing is examining the state of the game and doing what seems most effective to them. They simply reject the fleeting convention which you embrace. You are the scrub: the player - or component of a player - whose ability to play the game is limited before you ever consider what your opening move should be.

Terrorists, in other words, acknowledge no automatic or inherent restraints on what constitutes legitimate violence. Terrorism makes you tremble - in fear, anger, grief, confusion - because it reminds you that even the moral restraints which seem obvious and mandatory to you are in fact personal to you. The natural tendency of humanity is not towards good but towards evil. Nowhere is this more clearly shown to you than in the willingness of people - of brothers and sisters and parents and lovers and poets and students - to kill other people they have never met and cannot possibly hate in any individual or comprehensible sense. All of this in pursuit of an atmosphere of trauma and fear in order that certain political goals might, possibly, maybe, be furthered.

All this is not monstrous. It is as human as any act of love. And the reminder of this, the upsetting of the rules for not only warfare but your understanding of humanity, is what disquiets you so about terrorism.

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