How do we define terrorism? Carl Pettit takes a closer look.
Some people become terrorists with clear—although often difficult to obtain—goals in mind. In the past, members of the militant wings of groups like ETA, fighting for an independent Basque state, the Irish Republican Army (Provisional and Real), and even the PLO, have resorted to targeted killings, targeted bombings, random bombings and other tactics that have been labeled by many as “terrorism.” Whether you believe in the terrorism moniker or not, or the causes supported by these organizations, as a general rule the objectives of these fighting men and women have been fairly well-defined—the creation of an independent state (and potential destruction of another), carved out of the territory of a preexistent (legitimate or otherwise) geopolitical entity.
Terrorism, taken in its modern sense, is a multi-headed hydra, with many different players, and objectives. The type of terrorist activities that tend to capture the headlines these days are of the Islamic variety—gunmen, shoe bombers, car bombers, underwear bombers and pressure cooker bombers numbering among them.
It’s only natural for Americans and other Westerners to view acts of terrorism through the prisms of our contemporary culture. To this end, the public, and many media commentators, often want to get inside “the mind” of the bomber, jihadist or human being strapped into the suicide vest, and understand his of her motivation for doing the kinds of things most of us believe we could never do.
Perhaps television show like ‘CSI’ and ‘Law & Order,’ along with their numerous spinoffs, have whet the appetite of the general public for “investigations” into the psyche and motives of the people who commit acts of terror. While this is clearly the job of investigators, and has a place in the discourse of any free society, I fear it has become a distracting obsession, at least for the media, at the cost of other important issues. In many ways, the nightly reports on the saga of bombers and would-be bombers (long after the breaking news has passed) have mutated into a kind of reality television, based on the model of primetime crime show dramas.
This long form reporting might satiate the curiosity, and even entrain some, at a fairly low cost for the networks and media outlets providing the coverage, but the price comes with elevating the status of some terrorists to criminal master minds, when they clearly are not. Many of them (not all) don’t even have a solid base to stand on, concerning their political motivations or personal family grievances, for their brutal attacks.
People who have lost relatives to drone strikes, or night raids by special forces, could very well turn to terrorism in order to seek revenge for the wrongs hoisted upon them, adding to the list of people who already want to destroy Western targets based on purely ideological grounds. Yes, we need to address our actions in the world, and tread with more care, in order to avoid creating more terrorists, yet even if we win the hearts and minds of 99.999 percent of the people living in our own country, and in violent places like Pakistan or Yemen, there will always be a small percentage of folks left over, domestic and foreign, who just want to blow something—and someone—up, irrespective of their cultural, political or religious indoctrination. I’m not talking about true believers here. I’m speaking of purveyors of chaos and destruction, who do bad things simply because they want to watch a society burn, or have nothing better to do with their lives. (Happiness isn’t a guarantee in any culture).
The danger lies in the fact that many of these potential terrorists will justify their violence with some obscure hatred of a way of life they disagree with, or vague camaraderie with an oppressed people living far away, who they may sympathize with, but don’t really know, or understand.
Anyone who has lived a life worth living has probably experienced a broken heart, or felt like an outsider, excluded from one group or another at some point in his or her life. While this can be a painful thing, it doesn’t validate the use of random violence to get your point across, or spread your pain among others. If this were the accepted course for addressing cultural, political or religious grievances, then pretty much everyone would be blowing up or shooting everyone else, every single day, until the dystopias of science fiction became a firm reality.
Whether future terrorist attacks come from disaffected youth, folks who spend too much time in Internet chat rooms, or some other source, we need to learn how to live and deal with these threats, and defend ourselves (to the best of our abilities) without making the mindset and motivations of a particular terrorist’s life—regardless of how tragic it might be—an obsession that consumes a nation. No matter the good, or evil a particular group of people (societies and nation states) do in the world, there will always be someone out there who wants to tear the whole thing down.
Of course we should talk about, and try to learn from these events when they happen, but we should do so without turning them into political, psychological or action thrillers, rivaling the best Hollywood has to offer. If the media, and the consumers of media are successful in their endeavors, we’ll just be creating a recipe for more of the same.
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