“Explaining” Terrorism (Glenn Greenwald)


Reading Glenn Greenwald has always posed special challenge for me. His posts are black and white certainties that combine what would appear to be airtight logic with moral self-righteousness.  But I’m beginning to think that there is a lot of bait and switch, attempts to muddy the waters by refusing to make the kinds of distinctions in ordinary usage that work to make sense of complex social and political dynamic and conflicts.

Greenwald’s first response to the Woolwich murder and then his response to Andrew Sullivan are case in point. The problem is not that Greenwald legitimates terror. That’s red herring used by him to deflect more serious lines of critique against the arguments advanced by Greenwald and critics like him.

Rhetorically, there  is something off about the suite of arguments employed by Greenwald. What are called in the West acts of terror are said to be consequences of a prior set of acts made by powerful state-actors against less powerful states or non-state actors; and then double standards are invoked. Most interesting is the attempt to refuse the word itself, as if to say that what is most typically called “terrorism” is not what it is made to be.

Part of what’s off is that the attempt  by Greenwald to “explain” or hedge the definition of an act is to understand it as logical or rational comes close to legitmating the act in question. It comes right up to the border without actually crossing the line and doing so, insofar as the  arguments are the exact same ones made by the terrorists themselves and by their supporters and apologists. The act is understood, but not condoned, and then given new definitional contours. This is a fine line.

Terminology (I):

At the heart of the issue is the refusal to use the term “terrorism” to describe attacks by either non-state organizations or lone-wolves against western targets, be they civilian or military. So in his first response to Woolwich, Greenwald calls the attack a “horrendous act,” which is a statement that has no analytic value. It’s the first words in his initial response to Woolwich, and he comes back to them in his response to Sullivan. But this obvious fact begs the question. What kind of horrendous act is it supposed to represent?

Greenwald doesn’t want to call the murder at Woolwich a terrorist attack. But there’s a logical contradiction at play here. He argues that what most people are calling terrorism is, in fact, a criminal act, and should be regarded only as such, not as “terrorism.” But this doesn’t square with the fact that Greenwald will very frequently (almost always?) simply repeat the claims made by terrorists themselves, “explaining” that this is blow-back for any combinations of U.S. or, in this case, British policy in Muslim countries, or something having to do with Israel and Palestine. But criminal acts generally don’t have such broader political contexts. So if “criminal” is not the right word to describe a “horrendous act” such as at Woolwich, then what is? Maybe “terrorism” remains the better term.

Blow-back argument:

The blow-back argument adopted by Greenwald and others is that what are called acts of terror constitute some form of retaliatory blow-back.

Historically, the blow-back argument as it relates to terrorism ignores larger historical contexts. Both the first unsuccessful attack against the Twin Towers in New York and then 9/11 preceded the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which they triggered. So where’s the blow-back? If I understand the historical record right, what motivated al Queda was U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia, invited by the Saudi government. It had nothing to do with Israel or Palestine, which was only factored in as a pretext later on in arguments about 9/11. What the most users of the blow-back argument mostly ignore is the vicious circles that radicalize inter-group forms of action-reaction-counterreaction, as well as the fact that sometimes, not always, the blow-back is generated by internal political and cultural conflicts.

Double Standard/Moral Equivalence Argument:

In Greenwald’s case, the blow-back argument is supplemented by the double standard/moral equivalence argument, which holds that, in the West, when non-Europeans attack American or Europeans it’s called terrorism, whereas when U.S./Europeans/Israelis kill non-US/Europeans/Palestinians it’s called collateral damage. It’s then argued that these are really the same thing, equally, acts of terror, either the same thing, or at least morally equivalent. And if they are not morally equivalent, it is because the larger scale acts of destruction perpetuated by powerful state actors are more heinous than acts of terror.

The argument about “moral” equivalence may or may not be persuasive, but conceptually and perhaps legally, I would recommend that acts of terror and acts of war do not constitute identical phenomena. Political-military violence is asymmetrical and the different terms used to designate those acts reflect that asymmetry. Sometimes it is asserted by critics like Greenwald that what in the West is called “terror” is what Muslims allegedly do to Europeans or Americans or Israelis, while there is no onus carried by Americans, Israelis, or Europeans acts against Muslims. That doesn’t seem true. Not primarilly race or creed, the distinction between non-state actors and state actors is the more critical one. This brings us back to terminology

Terminology (II):

“Terrorism” in its ordinary usage in the West usually refers to acts by non-state actors against civilians with direct intention to kill. But it is also used to include acts by non-state actors against state-military targets, usually soft targets outside of declared zones of combat.

Examples include any number of acts by Hezbollah against civilians or against American or Israeli military targets in Beirut or South Lebanon going back to the 1980s. It also includes the Irgun attack against British military assets at the King David Hotel, as well as the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, or the acts of the so-called Jewish Underground in Israel in the 1980s, as well as acts of terror committed by the PLO or Hamas. In each case, the acts were committed by non-state actors, and it’s for this reason that the acts are identified as “terrorism,” as opposed to something else.

In contrast, when state-actors kill civilian non-combatants, and even combatants, intentionally or in any other way in contravention to the Geneva Conventions, these aren’t defined as acts of terror. Instead, these are called “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity.”

Morally, I would weight them in a descending scale, from crimes against humanity to war crimes to terrorism, but I would exclude from this acts of war per se. Distinguishing acts of war from war crimes and crimes against humanity would constitute another discussion, another argument. One does not have to hold that  every act of war is fundamentally criminal to consider that war would constitute a greater moral offense than does terrorism.

However one weights such acts of war and war-criminality or crimes against humanity, conceptually and perhaps legally these are different than acts of terror. Any given act committed by state actors might or might not constitute such crimes, but that’s what the argument is about. Indeed, wars crimes and crimes against humanity tend to carry a much heavier moral onus than terrorism.

As for “state-terror,” it seems to be a term used to create moral equivalence, usually to level a critique against the U.S. or Israel. I don’t think it is an actual legal term. I think the more ordinary usage is “state sponsored terror” for when states support the acts of non-state actors. An example would include the Iranian organization for the Hezbollah attack against the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, or for U.S. funding of the Contras during the Nicaraguan conflict.

It seems the better bet is not to do away with the term, as Greenwald seem to want, but to understand it better, conceptually and psychologically, and without moralizing it one way or the other.

Grey Zone:

My guess is that the reason terrorism unsettles people so much, even more so than war, has in part to do with psychological and cultural double standards. Peoples tend to care (more) about their own dead, not the dead of other people, and people from powerful countries tend not to think about the less powerful. But this kind of false political consciousness does not seem to explain completely what causes people to react so strongly against terrorism. I think it’s because the act would appear to lie outside the bounds of morality and fairness, and also outside the law as they have been codified by just war theorists or in international law. Symbolically, the act of terror is neither military nor criminal. It occupies a nebulous grey zone outside any system of recognized, settled political and/or moral order.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to “Explaining” Terrorism (Glenn Greenwald)

  1. donovanschaefer says:

    I like your critique of GG’s MO up at the top but I think I’m more sympathetic to his project of trying to strategically destabilize the semantic effectiveness of the word “terrorism.” Maybe the word “terrorism” is a problem because of the way it obstructs a line of inquiry? The label “terrorism” blocks follow-up questions about political or global dynamics (important to Greenwald) or individual pathologies and histories of trauma (important to me) or the reactions between them. Terrorism is a terminal explanation: no further investigation is required. And the defense of the inviolability of that label becomes a political project in its own right: “How dare you suggest that there is any reason for this other than that they hate us?”

    On the other hand (and here maybe I’m closer to you in wanting to keep the designation “terrorism,” though maybe for different reasons?), maybe the important thing about terrorism was the affective dimension, the production and rotation of terror between bodies? The way that terrorism picks up my terror and gives it to you? And if affective explanations sometimes function as terminal explanations–what we want is what we want–maybe there’s something productive in that?

    • zjb says:

      I agree with you on both counts, as well as the ways in which the frame “terrorism” has been put to such ill use as a terminal judgment. i’m just not sure that the alternative posed by GG is any much better and suspect that it’s just as bad in the way it shits off uncomfortable lines of inquiry, that like any line of inquiry needs to remain open.

      • donovanschaefer says:

        Right, I see what you’re saying. The critique is not necessarily running in the right direction, even if his skepticism toward the deployment of the term is warranted.

      • zjb says:

        perfectly said!

  2. “Terrorism” in its ordinary usage in the West usually refers to acts by non-state actors against civilians with direct intention to kill”. no that’s a definition of murder under that definition LA gangs(in fact some have argued they be prosecuted under anti terrorism statutes) , the mafia, and charles manson would be terrorists or even indivdiual murderers certainly if they didnt have any relationship to the victims . The crucial difference is the objective to further a political or ideological goal. Wikipedia has it right: “Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror); are perpetrated for a religious, political or, ideological goal; and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians). Some definitions now include acts of unlawful violence and war. The use of similar tactics by criminal organizations for protection rackets or to enforce a code of silence is usually not labeled terrorism, though these same actions may be labeled terrorism when done by a politically motivated group.

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