Sunday, October 21, 2007

Terrorism as a Rational Act of Resistance

I'm tired of hearing people say that suicide bombing and other such acts of terrorism are irrational.

There are many ways to opine about suicide bombing: we can be morally opposed to the specific tactic, we can support it in theory but oppose it in practice, we can be opposed to the ideology behind it, we can support it in some circumstances and not others, we can armchair speculate about its effectiveness, etc.

But we cannot really say that it is an irrational tactic.

Resistance ranges from demonstrations, riots, general strikes, petitions, destruction of property or symbols, and "everyday forms of resistance" such as false compliance, theft, sabotage, foot dragging, popular discourse, etc. Acts of violent resistance are simply one other tactic, and potentially a powerful one, for the weak to influence the strong. As such, they are as rational as any other tactic. Irrational would mean there was no reason behind the act, that it was a senseless act of violence for no purpose. But terrorist acts do have an internal logic and reasoning behind them. There's enough work done in the political sciences and history to prove that. Indeed that is the only premise on which to base an effective strategy to stop terrorism.

So why can't they admit that? Why can't the politicians and pundits oppose an act of terrorism by declaring it a tragedy and a terrible crime, or even by standing in opposition to the ideology espoused by the perpetrators? Why do they call it irrational?

I suppose to say that terrorism is rational is to admit the terrorists aren't so completely different from us, that they aren't inhuman, stupid, or beast-like. Or perhaps admitting respect for one's "enemy" displays a lack of machismo. Or maybe it's just laziness.

There's a desire in politics and punditry for simplicity. That's why stereotypes seem to be everywhere - they are a nice convenient way of avoiding any sort of depth, complexity, heterogeneity, multiplicities, layers, standpoints - you know, reality. The Manichean world view of good v evil is easily mapped onto other binaries, like Civilized/Uncivilized, Freedom/The Commies, Moral/Immoral, HonestHardworkingAmericans/Evildoers, Us/The Terrorists, Rational/Irrational. So you only have to conjure one of these and all the others are assumed. So maybe the word irrational is used as just another synonym for "evil".

Odd, because what "irrationality" is pretty much a synonym for is faith, and I don't mean it derogatorily. Faith, in the Christian sense anyways, is basically the gap between reason and God. What is beyond the rational.

Interesting, too, that the oppressed and marginalized have historically been labeled irrational. Women, people of colour, the colonized, pagans, the mentally ill, sexual "deviants", etc.

Irrational != Immoral
Moral != Rational

(Translation for non-geeks that means "Irrational does not equal Immoral, Moral does not equal Rational)


jj said...

Good post, very thoughtful.

Someone said "War is the terrorism of the rich & powerful, Terrorism is the war of the poor and powerless" or words to that effect.

It's no accident that terrorists are always portrayed as wild-eyed maniacs -- the powers that be wouldn't want people realizing that they have a choice to stand up and fight.

Renegade Eye said...

I'm disappointed in this post, that borders on reactionary.

Terrorism is substituting yourself, for a mass movement. Our job is to build coalitions, through patient political organizing and education, to transform society.

Terrorists even if their cause is good, hurt innocent people.

I don't think terror is irrational. It is amoral and reactionary.

Gene said...

Yeah! Tough call on this one, RJ!

Good post!

Scott said...

Good post, RJ.

Renegade Eye: I'm not sure why you think this post "borders on reactionary." It's main thesis -- that terror is not irrational -- is one that you state agreement with, and it closes by reaffirming that "rational" and "moral" are not equivalent things, so saying it is rational is no endorsement.

Is it because aspects of what gets labelled terrorism beyond its rationality are not also discussed? I've been thinking about it, and I'm not sure how much _can_ be usefully discussed outside of very historically concrete examples, because "terrorism" is such an ideological category (in the sense of combining lots of quite materially different things under one abstract banner because of one or a few shared characteristics). For example, your assertion that it "is substituting yourself, for a mass movement" strikes me as a claim that can only be made reasonably in historically specific ways. I could see arguing that for, say, the 9/11 attacks or for the Weather Underground's actions. But there are also examples from, say, the classical era of anti-colonial struggles in the mid-20th century, that you can criticize on lots of different grounds, as Jennie suggests, but claiming that the people who did it were substituting themselves for the movement is just inaccurate.

Red Jenny said...

I'm so annoyed. I was typing out a huge response and my computer crashed.

So I guess I have to state that I don't support terrorism as a tactic. But that requires a definition, as terrorism is a slippery word. We can use a working definition like violent acts committed by nonstate actors with the purpose of inspiring terror in a population. I think killing civilians is wrong, and most terrorist acts do just that - but so does much of modern warfare.

I think, as Scott said, each historically specific situation needs to be examined individually. For instance, the Algerian revolution was both a terrorist war, and a mass movement, all at the same time. What about Palestine? What about Iraqi insurgents? What about South African anti-apartheid struggles? Resistance against Vichy France? Oklahoma city bombing? 9/11? The bombing of a nightclub in Indonesia, or a wedding in Jordan? Each is very specific.

The point I was trying to get at is that terrorism is rational, not that it is moral or justified. And if it is rational, then it can be understood. Saying it is irrational is basically just trying to whip up fear and frenzy, and excuses those in power from having to come up with an effective strategy to deal with each specific instance.

KC said...

Hmmmm thats interesting because I don't often hear people call terrorist attacks "irrational".

Good to see you recognizing that "faith" is irrational though.

Polly Jones said...

I think this is a great post, RJ.

I agree that terrorism is not irrational.

Are any of us in position to judge the morality of it?

Half of what I eat contributes to the terror of poverty experienced by so many around the world...

I don't know. I'm not a pacifist. Especially when it comes to violence against women. I would have no problem blowing out the brains of some guy trying to hurt me.

I am in awe that there is not more terrorism against the oh-so-affluent North, first world, imperialists or whatever you want to call us/them.

Renegade Eye said...

I don't think terrorism is irrational. I don't think it's important to point it out.

It is a substitutionist tactic, even in good causes.

See Trotsky on Terror.

This is a good discussion.

Red Jenny said...

That's a good article RE, definitely worth reading. Just to clarify this is not a discussion of tactics, as in: should we employ terrorism as a tactic to overthrow the system. No, this is a discussion more related to colonialism, the "war on terror", fear and hysteria, and most particularly Israel/Palestine.

There was a significant secular left in Palestine at one point, just like most other decolonization movements, but the cold war hysteria basically destroyed that, and a religious nationalism came in to fill the void left.

I think it is also important to point out that while I don't support terrorism as a general rule, I support imperialist wars and colonial occupation even less. I point simply to the sheer immensity of the casualties that arise from the second compared to the first. 9/11 was a tragedy, the Iraq war is FAR worse. The sad thing is that 3000 dead Americans is seen as worse than close to a million Iraqis dead. A couple of destroyed buildings is seen as worse than a whole country destroyed. Same with Israel/Palestine. The casualties are so incredibly disproportionate. This does not even mention the unemployment, humiliation, and other day to day hardships. One is led to believe that some lives are simply worth more than others.

Do we really have to fear terrorism? How likely is it that you or I will die in a terrorist attack? Well, less likely than that we'll die of peanut allergy. How likely is it that an Iraqi will die a war-related death? Pretty damn high.

Terrorist acts like suicide bombing are easy and cheap. They have a big impact. They are quite rational under circumstances where you can't go to the store and buy a factory-made missile or tank.

princesspatrice said...

I agree with some points of the post. I think suicide bombings or any other terrorist act is a tragedy. I think it's horrible that such things have to happen, but I don't think they're irrational acts. They intend to pose a purpose or prove a point. It's done to make a statement. It certainly isn't moral or justified to most Americans, but to others it is. I think with Americans saying such acts are irrational and that terrorists are evil, do just create a fear and leave no option to understand or learn from the experience. If people would take a little time to understand, they may still not agree, but at least they know where someone else or a nation stands.

Anonymous said...

HMMMM, im confused at the comment that was intended for Americans that have an ape-like understanding of whether or not that particular "ACT" being irrational, i'm American with a BS in HMLS, these discussion first off are based on the perception of the one defining, that's the beauty of theory,science,philosophy, and a dozen other. Of course there Rational, they are seeking some sort of change and/or end bla bla, End hence the meaning of justifying the ACT, why else would they go to such lengths. Irrational+Logic=Incompatibility