07 July 2005

Terror as Political Theater

A narrative is a story that takes things we expect, like the handsome peasant's son falling in love with the comely princess, and combines them to explain things we do not, like the crystal casket and the magical kiss of true love. When the bombs went off in London this morning, there were many narratives used to explain why this happened. How can a man get on a train filled with Londoners and not be smitten with tenderness for them? How can he will their deaths? Did the perpetrator wear the bomb, or did he use ingenuity to leave it where it would kill? Was he forced to commit the act by thugs holding his family hostage? I can try to spin a narrative, which involves very severe errors of logic, a psychopathic distortion of religion, and the teachings of Frantz Fanon.*

Another narrative is, of course, that of Frantz Fanon himself (Wikipedia) and Che Guevara. Whatever may be the supposed influence of Fanon or Guevara on such thinking, they described political narratives in which the oppressed—a subjugated race, like the Blacks of French West Africa, or the dispossessed Arabs & Berbers of Algeria—would perceive violent resistance as their only hope. Fanon was a psychologist, and he includes case studies in the appendix of Wretched of the Earth, so his chain of reasoning owes much to empirical research.

However, I cannot take the idea seriously that terrorism actually achieves progressive motives. It alters how power is exercised; sometimes the perpetrator becomes an associate, as happens in some 3rd world insurgencies; in other cases the terrorist group abandons terrorism because the battlefield has changed (e.g., Hizbullah in Lebanon).

However, the main purpose of terror is political theater. The terrorist, we all understand, is in a derranged mental state and cannot make reasoned judgements. Just as the insane person can claim to be acting upon logical arguments, the terrorist communique or training manual claims to be following certain facts to their "inevitable conclusion." We often assume that insane people are illogical; that's not true. What makes a sane person sane is the ability to recognize when a stream of logic has gone too far from common sense or other forms of rational thinking. Somehow, the guardrail that prevents sane people from becoming murderers of people they never met, and who never did anything to them, is simply missing. To such a mind, death is merely an abstract loss; where you and I see 33 persons who were cruelly murdered, they see a "statement," a tactical "insult" towards a monolithic "other." Each and every person is somehow a manifestation of the hated "other" (I've actually read a fair amount of eschatological literature in translation; whether Evangelical Christian, like the Left Behind series, or Islamicist, this is an explicit feature of how the unbelievers are regarded. In most cases, the literature includes fantasies in which a huge share of "weak" coreligionists—e.g., "liberal" Christians, non-Qutb-ist Muslims—are slaughtered as part of a colossal redemptive auto de fe. Invariably, in these stories, both the errant coreligionists and the satanic infidels display astonishing determination to remain hostile to God's revealed plan).

In theater, the object is to tell a narrative that combines plausible events to create a surprise (e.g., a man unwittingly murders his father and beds his mother); in political theater, the object is to act in a way that reveals political possibilities. The new possibilities are "taking down" the Great Satan [sic.]; the goal, or dream , is not to persuade, but to defeat. In the 1960's, such an idea was not even madness; it wasn't even coherent enough to be Dadaism. The technology (gadgets) of mass destruction have escalated the plausible level of terrorist action, but so far we haven't seen the use of atomic bombs or really effective use of sarin gas. On the other hand, the technical aspects of civilization—the global system of fellowship known as civil aviation, for example—have been profoundly hurt by terrorism. For decades, European countries faced with smallish terrorist attacks have adopted sophisticated surveillance technology and onerous security systems that foreigners took in stride. American efforts to do so, regardless of the urgent motivation, have touched off extreme resentment in countries like Brazil.

Theater is about plausibility. Revolutionary theater, or political theater, seeks to convince the audience that total victory is in reach. Technology is about integration of knowledge, plus its diffusion. Both are about propagating ideas. Terror makes technology vulnerable; technology makes terror shift position. In the 1960's, the most ambitious terrorism was associated with Communism, which was affiliated with Moscow or Beijing; then, with Arab nationalism, which was associated with Cairo, Baghdad, or Algiers. In the 1970's, Leninist ideology was challenged by more radical, apocalyptic tendencies. In the 1980's, Hizbullah (Lebanon) challenged conventional (Sunni) Arab nationalist movements, just as Black September outflanked the mainstream PLO. Al-Fatah, now faced with a myriad of more desperate, far-fetched theaters of violence, sought international diplomatic recognition and renounced terror. The New Left was now under fire from genuinely nihilist movements, and—in Europe and the Middle East—abandoned violent "struggle." Al-Qaida represents a thread of conclusively nihilist theoretics, something that the founders of Hamas would probably concede was less plausible than levitating Israel to the North Pole.

With the shift of technology, the todays perpetrator becomes tomorrow's target, because the theater of terror is all about marginal plausibility and desperation.
*Frantz Fanon: I admit I'm uncertain about the role of Fanon's thinking in the ideology of "Islamic" terror. First, Fanon had an analysis of anti-colonialism that tended to implicate the entire populations of colonial powers, thereby validating violence against them. Defenders of Fanon, like Mahmoud Mamdani, argue that all he was doing was explaining what was already there. Others say he was an ideologue of murderous revolutionary violence, someone who justified terrorism by equating the person of non-combatant Europeans with colonial oppression. Someone reading his works would presumably see why it made perfect sense for Black September to gun for Israeli athletes (Munich, '72) or for the ANO to throw Klinghoffer off the railing of the Achille Lauro. Did that mean Fanon therefore is to blame for the newfound [?] enthusiasm with which terrorists target the helpless, rather than go after the people who actually do supervise their oppression?

Scientifically, the answer can only be "no." Fanon's works are seldom read; the indoctrination of terrorists or genocidal killers never alludes to Fanon. However, it often uses reasoning he had outlined. He wrote about terrorism after it had shocked the world. Hence, even if one is vulnerable to post hoc ergo hoc fallacy, it still makes no sense to accuse him of instigating things that occurred before anyone had read him. On the other hand, he seems to endorse the point of view of the terrorist: that the mass murderer, by virtue of representing an [arbitrarily designated] group of underprivileged, do indeed achieve liberation merely through killing the [arbitrarily designated] oppressor. The terrorist, in his view, represents a moral alternative to the oppressor. This, I cannot accept. The terrorist is another type of oppressor, and what he validates is the act of oppression.


Post a Comment

<< Home