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The Historical Context of Terrorism and Our Next Steps

The Historical Context of Terrorism and Our Next Steps

As the horrific tragedy of September 11 settles into permanent corridors of our conscious life, our reactions as a society are manifold. There is shock, grief, anger and other emotions that we have not fully understood or found words to describe. As we search for explanations, our sages in government, the media and the academy try to help us articulate what we have experienced. We have been told that our innocence is gone, that the third world war has begun and that we are confronting a new and more lethal form of terrorism than the world has ever seen.

There is no doubt that our life as a nation will be altered by the destruction of that day. The thousands of lost lives cannot be restored, and their loss cannot be explained to those left without them. Fear will become a presence that increased security can never really dispel. Sacrifices will be made if our government chooses to seek retribution by war, as seems now to be the case.

We are urged to resume normal life, as both a healing mechanism and a tactic in the war against terrorism. Sports events resume and we will cheer for another kind of victory, movie theaters will again draw crowds to view digitalized specters of violence, mayhem and terrorism, and our daily routines of earning a living, providing food for our families, and seeking temporary escape in front of televisions, at bars and in restaurants with friends will go on. The firebomb that brought down the World Trade Center will be a memory.

In historical perspective, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are not really new; they are part of an evolutionary pattern that continues to metastasize into the social fabric of the Western world. Modern terrorism began in a democracy: In 1793, the French government, after four years of experimenting with the problems of establishing a democratic republic, inaugurated a self-proclaimed “reign of terror” in which tens of thousands of citizens were victimized and executed as “enemies of the revolution.” Terror from below began with the Italian Carbonari, small cells of Italian patriots who killed French officers during the occupation of Europe under Napoleon. In 1849, Karl Heinzen wrote the first manifesto on modern terrorism in which he justified the killing of “the barbarians” in government as the only means of ending the injustice and brutality of monarchical rule.

Is America the World’s Largest Sponsor of Terrorism?

Thinking about peace requires understanding peace itself as thought, as knowledge, and as a critique of its others, its opposites: violence, terror, and war. Peace is encyclopedic in terms of the knowledge that it generates as well as the knowledge upon which it draws. This essay is a brief attempt to explore what the circumstances are for peace as thinking and what goes into that thinking. What I’m saying here rests on three important assumptions: first, we cannot simply point outward to terror and “hit” the right target; second, to have peace one must extend peace; and third, the necessary counter to notions of a “just war” is a “just peace.”

There are combinations of circumstances and environments that work against peace. A few examples here will have to suffice–some historical, one current: (1) the circulation of state-supported terror in the form of white supremacist vigilante terror–lynchings–that continued until the middle of the 20th century, (2) general U.S. citizens’ refusal and/or inability to grieve for those who were victims of our government’s and our government’s allies’ support of terror throughout Central and South America, and (3) general obedient trust in U.S. authority in times of crisis, exemplied by the willingness of our elected representatives to give a blank check and almost unlimited power to president George Bush.

I mentioned the “others” of peace — I want to take up one word that represents a most powerful “other,” terrorism: terrorism1, the act–the use of force or threats of force to demoralize, intimidate, and subjugate–especially such use as a political weapon or policy, and terrorism2, the outcome–the demoralization, intimidation, and subjugation so produced.

Terrorism refers both to the act (the verb) and its accomplishment (the noun). The effect of terrorism, the noun, is accomplished by various means. We can “read” back from the effect and recognize the means. The dead bodies are the effects, and we read back from those bodies and their circumstances, the means that produced them. Our understanding of peace as knowledge might productively begin then with the effects of war itself as terrorism–the demoralization, intimidation, and subjugation of people especially as a result of a political weapon or policy. The effect of terrorism is not so very different from the effect of war; in fact, the dividing line between terrorism and war has long depended upon the difference between the use of force legitimated by a state as opposed to the laissez faire or ad hoc use of force or threat by individuals and/or non-state groups.

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