Rethinking Terror

Progressive politics must move beyond the “terrorist”

Throughout the last several years, the American-led “War on Terror” has engendered impassioned debate. In this country, Congress has been beset by animated wrangling over the policies that safeguard the homeland’s security; and overseas, American influence over many countries’ political realities makes engagement with these issues unavoidable. Yet, underlying the majority of formal political discourse on the subject, an unhealthy consensus prevails. Generally speaking, all concerned agree on the basic premise of the “War on Terror”: the “terrorist.” And since few in power today dispute the mindset that begets this “Other,” the waging of the “War on Terror” will continue to hamper efforts to build lasting peace.

During this past summer, Pakistan wrestled with these issues in an intense and all-too-tragic way. In response to the excesses of an armed extremist movement based in an Islamic school, Pakistan’s military forces laid siege to the extremists’ compound. Following a series of dramatic, bloody battles, the complex was cleared, though at tremendous cost: approximately 350 dead and injured. In the weeks that followed, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t have a strong opinion on the incident and its ramifications. Yet amidst the many viewpoints expressed, the official position resurfaced regularly: Here were “terrorists” threatening to compromise the social fabric of our nation.

Those championing this framework began by asserting the incomprehensible inhumanity of the “terrorist.” In spite of the fact that many of the members of this movement were impoverished teenagers who relied on the school for food, shelter, and education, partisans of this approach did not tolerate attempts to understand their grievances. A particularly prominent Pakistani liberal raged that the “Lal Masjid battle is part of the wider civil war within the Islamic world waged by totalitarian forces that seek redemption through violence,” and decried their “cancerous radicalism.” This perspective is hardly absent from liberal discourse in the West: In the aftermath of the London bombings, for example, Thomas Friedman furiously demanded that the Islamic world acknowledge and cure the cancer within it.

Crucially, this argument is predicated on the gap that it implants between the average citizens and the extremists; the rhetoric employed presumes a permanent disjuncture between “terrorists” and “non-terrorists.” Reconciliation and rehabilitation are not only impossible, we are told, but undesirable. The resolution of the war with the “terrorists,” then, will come only with their wholesale elimination, at which point, it’s implied that everyday, regular politics will resume.

Despite these progressive pretensions, it is precisely here, at the moment of “Othering,” that this paradigm reveals its affinity for gross, unmitigated violence. Because “terrorists” are placed beyond understanding, their elimination is almost never conceptualized as a political problem, but a military one. Eqbal Ahmed, in an influential 1965 article on counter-revolutionary warfare in Vietnam, suggested that American administrators were destined to decimate the local, civilian population because they began in precisely this way, by rejecting the primacy of politics. Perhaps the best example of this genocidal impulse came not too much later in 1970, when the gap endemic to such a mindset enabled Nobel Peace laureate Henry Kissinger ‘50, relaying a command given by Richard Nixon, to order “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”

To move past this pernicious framing of the problem of terror, we must begin by recognizing the arbitrariness of the classification itself. Those who have been designated “terrorists” by the powers-that-be, while sometimes guilty of heinous crimes against humanity, have hardly had a monopoly on terror. One only needs to revisit the historical record, where—as Frantz Fanon once wrote about European imperialism—we find an “avalanche of murders” carried out by those who “never stopped talking of man.”

Neither have today’s “terrorists” always been yesterday’s: Everyone remembers Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1983 invocation of “the ideals of freedom and independence” to describe the anti-Soviet mujahideen. And what of proactive U.S.- and U.K.-support for Saddam’s preemptive aggressiveness in the early 1980’s? And this against an Iran that had only recently emerged from 25 years ruled by a brutal dictator backed by an infamous, U.S.-trained secret police.

Of course, nothing should compel us to excuse acts of terror. But insofar as we understand that terror’s perpetrators have been both “terrorists” and “non-terrorists,” we must commit to a politics free of this all-too-artificial antagonism. A humanistic and inclusive politics is indeed possible, and only its implementation can deliver a terror-free world.

While some may deem this reconciliation utopian, what is truly far-fetched is the insistence that violence can beget peace—the assertion that the elimination of “terrorists” is literally achievable. Has recent history not made clear that all the illegitimate wars, all the indiscriminate bombings, all the illegal torture, produce only retaliatory madness? Until progressives can mobilize against policies that see the solution to terror mostly in its more effective application, we are destined to live and relive the barbarity of the present.

Adaner Usmani ‘08 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.