Michael Kinnucan

On Terror


By the right and order of nature I merely mean the rules determining the nature of each individual thing by which we conceive it is determined naturally to exist and to behave in a certain way. For example fish are determined by nature to swim and big fish to eat little ones, and therefore it is by sovereign natural right that fish have possession of the water and that big fish eat small fish. For it is certain that nature, considered wholly in itself, has a sovereign right to do everything that it can do, i.e., the right of nature extends as far as its power extends…since the universal power of the whole of nature is nothing but the power of all individual things together, it follows that each individual thing has the sovereign right to do everything that it can do, or the right of each thing extends so far as its determined power extends.
- Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise, 1677
Black People can develop Self-Defense Power by arming themselves from house to house, block to block, community to community, throughout the nation. Then we will choose a political representative and he will state to the power structure the desires of the black masses. If the desires are not met, the power structure will receive a political consequence. We will make it economically nonprofitable for the power structure to go on with its oppressive ways. We will then negotiate as equals. There will be a balance between the people who are economically powerful and the people who are potentially economically destructive.
- Huey P. Newton, "The Functional Definition of Politics," Black Panther, May 15, 1967
…you cant steal nothin from a white man, he's already stole it he owes you anything you want, even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker this is a stick up!
- Amiri Baraka, "Black People," 1967
It can be formulated as a general maxim of present-day European legislation that all the natural ends of individuals must collide with legal ends if pursued with a greater or lesser degree of violence... From this maxim it follows that law sees violence in the hands of individuals as a danger undermining the legal system. As a danger nullifying legal ands and the legal executive? Certainly not; for then violence as such would not be condemned, but only that directed to illegal ends. It will be argued that a system of legal ends cannot be maintained if natural ends are anywhere still pursued violently. In the first place, however, this is mere dogma. To counter it one might perhaps consider the surprising possibility that the law's interest in a monopoly of violence vis-a-vis individuals is not explained by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by that of preserving the law itself; that violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law. The same may be more drastically suggested if one reflects how often the figure of the "great" criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public. This cannot result from his deed, but only from the violence to which it bears witness. In this case, therefore, the violence of which present-day law is seeking in all areas of activity to deprive the individual appears really threatening and arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the mass against the law.
- Walter Benjamin, "Critique of Violence"
In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission. The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organisation and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy.
- Leon Trotsky, “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism,” 1911

Just as we on the left refuse to recognize a difference in principle between property and theft, so too we do not recognize a difference in principle between legitimate and illegitimate violence. Of course there is a very great difference in fact between property and theft: thieves usually get caught and rarely become wealthy. Property is like theft, but more successful. By the same token, there is a very great difference between legitimate and illegitimate violence: legitimacy is the prize violence awards itself when it is so successful as to gain undisputed control of a territory and a population. Just as property is the seizure no one is strong enough to dispute, state power is the violence whose legitimacy no one is in a position to question. But the difference is one of consequence, not of kind.

Given this refusal, two positions are possible: (1) all violence is legitimate, (2) no violence is legitimate. The second has several well-remembered exponents in the 20th century and perhaps requires no further explication; the first is harder to recognize. Does anyone believe that all violence is legitimate? Not in exactly those terms; the language of legitimacy is one of distinctions. But one might hold that when it comes to violence the question of legitimacy is simply misplaced: violence is a means among others, to be judged like other political means by the ends it pursues and its efficacy in achieving those ends. This position has a long and storied history, but Huey Newton expresses it very well: the capacity for violence is a form of power like other forms, political "representation" is not an alternative to these forms of power but their modes of expression, and those who wish to be well represented in decisions affecting them ought first of all to seek power to force their representation, through violence if nothing better offers.

Whichever side one takes here, however, the asymmetry between legitimate and illegitimate violence does not disappear without remainder, since state violence does not acknowledge itself as a violence among others but appeals to a higher principle—it is not content with facthood and would like to become de jure. It is assisted in this pretension by its particular quality as impending: state violence in its ideal form exists as a threat which will never need to be acted upon. For the state, the actual exercise of violence is always the mark of a failure, since it demonstrates that someone doubted its capacity enough to force its hand.

Much of the political power of illegal violence lies precisely in this forcing. When the state is faced with, say, riots and looting, it may well be able to protect property through its police power, by sending in men with guns. But in so doing it is forced to acknowledge in practice that property is not a matter of right but a relation of force. To meet state violence with illegal violence is to force the state to acknowledge that its legitimacy emerges from its power and not vice versa. This revelatory power has occasionally led revolutionaries (Fanon, Sorel) to regard illegal violence almost as a good in itself, quite independent of the strategic ends it might serve. This position is perfectly consistent with the view that the just social order will be without violence and even that the absence of violence will be its defining quality, since the state’s self-mystification, as an affirmation of violence in principle, is a much greater obstacle to the creation of such a society than any amount of violence in fact.


I bring all this up now because terrorism is in the news again, and with it the relationship between state and non-state political violence. "Terrorism"--I almost hate to use the word. For those of us whose formative political experience was the disastrous US response to 9/11, the temptation to simply have done with "terrorism" as a term and a concept is intense. We have laws against murder already; let us enforce them and leave it at that. The cost, to the United States and to the world, of the US government and media's decision to treat 9/11 as an act of war and casus belli simply boggles the mind; the American and foreign lives lost, the money spent, the frightening political consequences at home and the regional chaos still unfolding in the Middle East turned what might have been a tragic footnote in history into one of the defining political disasters on the post-Cold-War era. Would that the Bush administration had responded in 2001 as the Clinton administration did in 1993, with a symbolic missile strike on the wrong target, and simply moved on! Better still, would that our government had simply ignored the political forces behind 9/11, treated it as a criminal act, punished those responsible and said no more! Instead, the panic invoked around "terrorism" destroyed whole societies. No act of terror could have damaged us as badly as we damage ourselves in our response to 9/11.

And "terrorism" evokes not only dangerous panic but analytical confusion--specifically, and endlessly, between means and ends. Criticism of the ongoing, indefinite "War on Terror" (war on a feeling? A tactic?) has been widespread, but the name was no doubt chosen with good reason, and not solely to guarantee the interminability of said war. "Terrorism" names a means to a political end, a violent means and one which is marked out as unacceptable--unacceptable, presumably, even in pursuit of a just end. Thus in condemning terrorism states re-draw the line between legitimate violence, the kind that they practice, and illegitimate violence, the vastly less deadly and effective kind that non-state political actors use.

Better still, by naming one's enemies after a means one avoids the need to name their ends, or indeed one's own. The real stakes of the past decade's conflicts in the Middle East for both sides largely disappear from view in a war on "terror"; both the grand strategy of regional supremacy which motivated, for instance, the US invasion of Iraq, and the regional strategies of opposition to the US-underwritten order which motivate the extremely wide variety of political groups targeted in the name of the War on Terror, from the former governments of Iraq and Afghanistan to Al Quaeda, Al Shabbab and the Islamic State. As so often, it's easier to see the intention behind this rhetoric at a distance--listen to the Syrian and Russian governments' protestations about their right to fight terrorism in their territory.

The fact that the prosecutors of the war on terror have many times more blood on their hands than the terrorists themselves naturally provokes a certain skepticism concerning their handwringing, if not anger at their hypocrisy. Of course that anger should not inspire us to side with or even "understand" the terrorists. Their ends are reactionary and their failure to cause as many deaths as the US government reflects lack of means rather than lack of will. But it certainly ought to give us pause when we're asked to share in a moment of collective horror and rage at the "barbarity" of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Our induced horror and rage have proven much too useful in legitimating far too much bloodshed.

For that reason, when terror attacks happen it's hard to know how to feel. I mean that quite literally: after the decade 2000-2010 the emotional vocabulary of collective mourning is too risky, too politically useful, and it's hard to know how to relate to events that provoke it. I was forcefully reminded of this recently when Hillary Clinton, after what appeared to be an act of terrorism, called for a return to the "spirit of 9/12"; 9/12 was about the time I learned to associate candlelight vigils and “coming together as a country” with land war and shock and awe.

Not knowing how to feel about terrorism I've been wondering how to think about it. Where does it fit in the bestiary of political violence? What ends does it serve, and how well?

One way of looking at terrorism would place it on the spectrum of guerilla war, as a form of violence characteristic of asymmetrical warfare. The aim of terrorism would on this reading be to use limited means against an enemy of much greater means to render a particular political situation too expensive to maintain. Since preventing terrorism entirely would indeed be incredibly expensive--strikes against soft targets killing dozens or even hundreds of people aren't so hard to carry out--the stronger enemy (that's us) will, ideally, choose to concede something and change the political situation in order to end the terror campaign.

If that's the strategy, it's stupid. Neither the emotional dynamics nor the political calculus of a country faced with terrorist attacks tend towards concession; emotionally, civilian deaths cry out for vengeance, while strategically conceding anything to terrorists would only provoke further attacks. In the aftermath of 9/11 the US political system, far from understanding that its underwriting of the geopolitical system of the Middle East was too expensive to maintain, became willing to bear virtually any cost in order to maintain and extend it. A terrorist strategy, on this reading of its intentions, would certainly fail.

But did 9/11 fail? It's hard to assess since the long-term goals of Al-Qaeda--the overthrow of the modern Middle Eastern system of nations and its replacement with a caliphate--have always been very likely unachievable. But certainly we have to admit they moved the needle quite significantly. Before 9/11 who could have imagined an identifiably Islamist political organization like ISIS controlling large parts of Iraq and Syria? And the political circumstances which permitted that to happen are quite directly traceable to the Iraq War, whose political condition of possibility in turn was 9/11.

Not, of course, that Al-Qaeda knew exactly what would happen. But a massive US military response to the attacks was predictable, one disruptive enough to create zones of opportunity.

This form of success—in which opponents of a state leverage use that state's propensity to violence against it—suggests an odd affinity between terrorism and strategic non-violence of the kind associated with Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Non-violence, too, after all, depends on the violence of the state for its efficacy; if the police simply ignore a sit-in it has little propagandistic value. It’s only when protesters are attacked and the images of attack disseminated that non-violence is effective, because only then is the status quo required to reveal itself as a product of violence. Terrorism and non-violent resistance depend in different ways on drawing the state down to the level of actual violence and assuming the risks that entails.

But the symmetry breaks down in that non-violence serves only to reveal state violence while terrorism goes farther and seeks to produce it. Think of the series of terrorist attacks in Europe since 9/11, or al-Zarqawi’s campaign to provoke Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq—the strategic logic here depends not merely on exacerbating ethnic, racial and confessional tensions but on provoking the state to participate in the racialization of whole populations, to produce peoples where none existed before. Terror conscripts the biopolitical technologies of the state to build its constituency—and the state is often all too willing to participate. This secret complicity between the state which fights terror and the organizations which enact it is what makes terrorism so intractable for the left.

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