Saturday, January 10, 2015

Questioning the unquestionable

What up, Pham?  

There's a critique of my earliest post about Charlie Hebdo at Pham Binh's blog.*  The only thing I want to engage with in his piece is this line:

"[H]e questioned the use of the term terrorism in what was unquestionably a terrorist attack."

Now, of course, if there is one thing I have learned as a writer, it is that one must never question the unquestionable.  To question the unquestionable is deeply irresponsible and liable to lead to incidents in Grosvenor Square.  Nevertheless, Binh's statement implies that he knows what 'terrorism' is and could give an uncontroversial, non-normative definition that any reasonable person could agree on.  If that is the case, he is unjustly languishing in the margins of bloggery, because this is a problem that no government, no academic, and no journalist or think-tank has solved.  'Terrorism' is first and foremost a legal category, and there is no legal interpretation, and no legal definition, that is not fraught with glaring inconsistencies, question-begging and special pleading.  And since law is the dominant form of the dominant ideology, this indeterminacy feeds into other ideological articulations, particularly the social sciences and journalism.

One of the most telling moments in the literature of the 'war on terror' was when the academic Alan Krueger concluded his book on What Makes a Terrorist by suggesting that it was a mistake to mention the word 'terrorism' at all.  This is because his book was actually a counterinsurgency manual, which - within the limits of the dominant ideology - attempted to provide a solid social scientific foundation for the 'war on terror'.  He had no interest in political violence wielded by such formations as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, or the Nicaraguan Contras, and he likewise was totally uninterested in any form of state behaviour that could be considered 'terrorism'.  In fact, his attempt to define his subject in such a way as to provide a set of narrow policy prescriptions linked to 'democracy promotion' meant that he descended into platitudes and incoherence.

Another salient moment from the same era was when Christopher Hitchens, who had previously disparaged the term, attempted to revive it by offering the singularly unsatisfactory definition: "the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint."  In later articles and interviews, he would try to apply this to the 'war on terror' terrain.  Reaching some depressing conclusions, he explained that the "root cause" of "Islamic terror" was "the ideology of Islamic terror", adding: "I do not say that all Muslims are terrorists, but I have noticed that an alarmingly high proportion of terrorists are Muslims."

It is no accident, as we used to say, that the ideologues of counterterrorism ended up spouting such puerile pish.  The problem is not just in the uses to which the language of 'terrorism' is put; it is inherent in the language itself.  The inherently normative, contested nature of the language can be illustrated as soon as we try to define 'terrorism'.

It includes political violence intended to spread fear among sections of the population.  Does it involve violence by states, or only sub-state forces?  Does it include violence targeted against troops, or only against civilians, or 'noncombatants'?  How is the category of 'civilian' or 'noncombatant' defined?  If terrorism includes attacks on troops, must they be off-duty?  If they can be on-duty, must they be off an active battlefield?  What constitutes an active battlefield in a global situation where wars are fought across borders at will (think drone strikes)?  How one answers these questions is obviously profoundly normative, and equally obviously will strongly determine what kinds of incidents and agencies are classed as 'terrorist'.

To take a well-known example.  The US government considers the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000 by the 'al Qaeda' network to be a straightforward case of 'terrorism'.  On the face of it - that is, on account of dominant assumptions that we rarely pause to examine - this seems "unquestionable".  Yet what was struck was an armed naval vessel whose sailors were military personnel who were on duty at the time.  The reasoning given for defining the attack as a terrorist action is that a "state of military hostilities" did not exist at the time.  The fact that 'al Qaeda' bombed the ship as it was harboured in Aden as part of a general offensive against the US military presence in the Middle East would suggest that military hostilities did exist.  But what is meant here is that the US, which has the power to determine and impose its own legal definitions of situations in which its military is deployed, did not consider there to be a state of military hostilities, and therefore classified the military action against its vessel to be an act of terrorism.

To take another well-known example.  The US government certainly does not consider the military assault on Fallujah to be an example of terrorism.  This is despite the fact that it involved the deployment of political violence explicitly intended to intimidate sections of the population, and targeted large numbers of civilians, many of whom were prevented from leaving the city before the assault began.  The rationale for this is that the action was carried out by lawful state agencies, the US military and its allies, carrying out a legal duty as mandated by UN resolutions and agreements with the Iraqi governments.  Those prevented from leaving, meanwhile, were "males of military age", and in most US actions that means "combatant".

There is no good reason to accept the US government's preferred set of definitions, other than that they have the politico-military power to ensure that theirs are the only effective ones, and the ideological power to ensure that theirs resonate with common sense assumptions.

And this brings me back to my point that the label of 'terrorism' signifies a particular genre of story-telling.  Given the dominant normative assumptions that guide the interpretation of 'terrorism', it makes perfect sense for someone like Hitchens to claim that most, or a disproportionate number of terrorists are Muslims.  Given the way terrorism is defined in the dominant ideology, this just happens to be unambiguously true.  Hitchens was only saying what was really implicit in the dominant ideology without the usual hypocrisy and evasion.

When we define an action as 'terrorist' in this circumstance, we are setting up a narrative that purports to explain what has happened.  And 'new atheists' such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins also, with refreshing directness, tell us exactly what the explanation is: these things happen because of an atavistic impulse coded in the Muslim religion which is unreconstructed and thus worse than other religions.  Societies which have become civilised have put manners on religions and the religious.  However, the believers in Islam routinely accept as mainstream assumptions which civilisation finds rebarbative, which makes them hugely dangerous.  Now Bill Maher has been good enough to apply this, again without any liberal handwringing, to the current situation by saying that what the killers of Charlie Hebdo journalists have done reflects a mainstream belief among Muslims that violence is regrettable but, when you insult the prophet, all bets are off.  The label of 'terrorism' in such circumstances leads us straight into the very dead-end of racist, state repression and imperialist violence that guarantees the recurrence of such events in the future.

This is what I meant when I questioned the "unquestionable".


*For the sake of background, Binh used to be an ISO member and an editor at North Star, before moving to the right and extolling US military intervention and urging alliance with the neo-Nazis in Ukraine.  When he commented on this blog, he was usually smart, pissy, occasionally right on the money, sometimes maverick.  He's still fairly pissy, even if he micturates for reaction these days.  Neither the tone nor the content of his piece is any surprise whatsoever.