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Anatomy of Terrorism

The title of this essay may be somewhat confusing. This is unavoidable, as one should automatically assume that the subject is the current “War on Terror” with the U.S. as target. Not exactly. The title might just as well be “Warfare,” as terror itself is a weapon of war, not an end in itself. Even today’s terrorists have motivations, Islamic Caliphate in particular. They are “at war,” but their weapons cannot include planes, tanks, or infantry. They use what they have and target what is vulnerable. In both cases, this means primarily civilians.

The title “war on terror,” thus, is a euphemism, a linguistic problem, as it identifies the enemy as a tactic, not a cause or a people. Just as there is no such thing as a “war on tanks,” the vocabulary on the current (and seemingly endless) war is a strategic misnomer.

Names are not irrelevant. President Obama refused to identify Islam with terror, the Confederacy refused to fight a “civil” war, and World War II was named since it continued the first one. Most wars have place names: Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan. There has never been a nameless war, and each name has a meaning.

Normally, the tactics of war have strategies. This is universal in conventional wars but obscure in terror wars. That’s because terror as a weapon cannot, by definition, go any further than its particular locale. When soldiers capture a city, they intend to occupy the whole country. When the Allies stormed the Normandy beach, they wanted to take Germany, not just the French coast.

By killing civilians in buildings or blowing up a mall, what is the strategy of terrorists? What have they gained? Unlike “real” war, the answer is not obvious or even apparent.    

In trying to uncover the purpose of terror, one runs into obstacles immediately. That may be why the subject infuriates so many: there seems to be no purpose. After 9/11, where over 3,000 innocents died, radical Islam gained nothing but notoriety. No space was occupied, no government toppled, no strategy recognized. Today, eighteen years later, there also has been no apparent gain. Even ISIS, spawned after 9/11, has had to yield back the sizable territory that it gained. So, what is the value of “back to square one”?

A related problem is the enemy himself. Wars are defined as large movements, huge countries, millions of men, crushing of material, profound conclusions. On 9/11/01, nineteen men, who couldn’t even land an airplane, refocused the energy and direction of history’s greatest superpower, forced it to spend billions of its dollars; all without tangible gain. On the positive side, it hasn’t happened since.

That does not mean that terrorism has no consequences. But consequence without purpose is demonstrably irrational. Western lifestyles have been disrupted, buildings secured, lines at airports, new agencies and departments created, but for what? If terrorists wanted to murder and disrupt societies, they have been successful. But what is their ultimate purpose if it stops there?

Even something as basic as a definition remains elusive. The term itself is French, terrorisme, “great fear,” “dread,” related to the Latin verb, terrere, “to frighten.” In 1793, The French National Commission declared that “terror is the order of the day.” That period saw the first formal “reign” of terror, with Maximilien Robespierre proclaiming that “terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible.” The first recorded English definition appeared in 1798, to mean “systematic use of terror as a policy.”    

We haven’t come much further since. Neither the international community nor scholarship has been able to draw a consensus definition. In 2003, the United States Army counted 109 different definitions, covering a total of 22 separate elements. Terrorism expert Walter Laqueur wrote that the “only general characteristic is that terrorism involves violence and the threat of violence [but] so does war, coercive diplomacy and bar room brawls.”

Perhaps a larger perspective may shed light. Examined further, terror is as old as warfare itself. Even the Bible has its own references. In Paul’s 2 Corinthians, terror is employed much as it is used today: “Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.”

Terror has had a great impact on modern times beyond the French Revolution. Around the turn of the twentieth century, eleven heads of state were killed by terrorists, including President McKinley and Hapsburg Empire heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s murder caused the First World War and much of what has happened since. All by a young man with a pistol, a member of the Serbian terrorist gang, “Black Hand.”

The rise of totalitarian regimes throughout the globe has given an equal rise to the so-called “age of terror.” The “Red Terror,” invented by Vladimir Lenin, and the “Gestapo,” invented by Adolph Hitler, have perhaps done more than any other ideological movements to create the fear-psychosis now endemic in the American political culture.

But the past was much worse. In his book, The Great Terror, Robert Conquest has estimated that “the whole range of Soviet regime’s terror can hardly be lower than fifteen million.” One explanation of the use of terror came from former Soviet KGB General Aleksandr Sakharovsky, who wrote that, “In today’s world, when nuclear arms have made military force obsolete, terrorism should be our main weapon.” In 1969, when 82 airplanes were hijacked by the KGB-financed Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), he boasted that “airplane hijacking is my own invention.”

Finally, an “anatomy” of terrorism can go no further than a description of the “externals,” the instruments and tactics. The “internals,” motives, strategies, are beyond this scope. Perhaps St. Paul, above, was right: they either think that they’re God or that they are acting for Him.

In 1949, The God That Failed revealed the “repentance” manifestos of former members of the Communist Party. One reviewer wrote that the book “promoted an American agenda [and] was immediately read as a volley from the American side of the Cold War.”

Perhaps we need a new “volley.”