The Art of Terrorism, with Commentary on the War on Drugs
It is safe to say that there no one in America - save the too young, the sick and dying, prisoners in solitary isolation, and those facing execution - who does not start the day thinking of terrorism and America's response to terrorism. It is also safe to say that few give serious thought to what terrorism is, who takes on the role of terrorist, and what goes into the making of a terrorist operation - which is unfortunate. America has been so stunned by the terrorist invasion - this is written in the aftermath of the September event - that the condition of the country resembles a state of hypnosis. Endless replay of the scene of the disaster keeps the experience of September 11 fresh, beyond the control of viewers to erase, or take on in a rational perspective. The danger of the inability to pull out of the hypnotic daze is the danger of falling into the terrorism trap, which is to comply with the wishes of the author of a terrorist operation and do as the author has predicted. The art of terrorism relies on the power of manipulation. If America does not see through the manipulative element in the September 11 operation, whatever it may be, America's response may take the form intended by the terrorist, and unintentionally head further into disaster.
The art of terrorism may be defined as the application of violence to a selected population with the intention of evoking a premeditated response. The result is a terrorist operation, which in the case of a successful operation includes the response by the target population or its representatives that was intended. The points to consider are (1) the author, who works for a terrorist organization and why, (2) the means, the type of violence applied to a target population, (3) the intention, a concept that covers the quality of the intention - Is it rational? Is it feasible? - and the content of the intention, what the author of a terrorist operation hopes to bring about, and (4) the response which follows - whether or not successful from the terrorist's point of view.
The definition excludes the application of violence to a selected population for the sole purpose of its extermination. Stalin's act of starving to death 23 million peasant farmers was a terror-evoking act, but it was not an act of terrorism in the sense meant here. Stalin simply wanted to get rid of the kulaks. Starvation was not used as a means to obtain some benefit elsewhere. The same goes for the Holocaust. If the Nazi intention had been to win concessions from the Allied Forces in return for sparing the lives of European Jews, the Holocaust would count as an act of terrorism, albeit it one that failed. But Jewish life was no concern of Hitler's. The genocide of America's native peoples by white settlers in the Nineteenth Century is likewise not an example of terrorism in the sense meant here. The native population was killed off so the settlers could take their land.
Whereas, the detonation of an atomic bomb over Hiroshima was terrorism in the suggested sense. Horrifying injuries were inflicted on an "innocent" population with the intention of breaking the will of the Japanese government to continue resistance (with a reminder of more to come at Nagasaki a few days later). The intention was communicated to the government of Japan, and the terrorist operation succeeded in saving American lives. Hitler's forces killed males over 16 in the village of Lidice in 1942 and deported Lidice's women as a warning to the Czech resistance to cease operations against the occupying forces. That too is an example of terrorism, whether or not successful not being known. The key element in both cases is manipulation, twisting an opponent's arm by applying violence to an "innocent" population - the "innocence" of the population being irrelevant to the purpose served.
Terrorism cannot be written off as mindless violence, or the work of crazy people, or the face of evil. The art of terrorism is to plan and conduct an operation that is purposeful, rational, and in the inventory of terrorist values good.
Within the boundaries of a national state, the use of violence in the performance of their duties by agents of the state is a function of normal law enforcement. That obviously does not count as terrorism. The distinction between a terrorist operation on home soil and law enforcement, however, may not always be clear. A gray area lies between the use of violence to evoke the response intended, and the use of violence as a function of law enforcement. The US government conducts a massive operation involving billion dollar expenditures and prisons on a scale unprecedented in the nation's history, to catch, prosecute, and imprison people who use illegal drugs. Officials in charge of Drug War operations and compliant members of the public do not view the War on Drugs as terrorist. For them it is a routine deployment of law enforcement operatives against people who break the law. A gray area exists because the methods used in the enforcement of drug laws are patently designed to terrorize, in addition to the law enforcement purposes they serve. Those midnight raids by black-suited, ski-masked SWAT teams, those operatives leveling laser guns and uttering foul language, those children pulled screaming from their beds and forced at gunpoint to the floor, the racket of helicopters overhead - agents who take part in Drug War operations behave, and are expected to behave, as terrorists. The distinction between a law enforcement operative and a terrorist can be murky.
The lone individual acting as author of a terrorist event designed to influence a government is an anachronism, owing to improved methods of communicating which let individuals form groups and work more effectively in combination. The days of the lone assassin, intending to terrorize his own or a foreign government, are probably numbered.
It may be doubtful whether a terrorist group not itself comprised of agents of Government A is acting independently or with the support of a Government B which may profit from the result it intends to obtain. It is reasonable to suppose that some independent terrorist groups operate with the backing of a friendly government and some do not. It is probable that, without the backing a friendly government, an independent group is liable to engage in faulty planning and mismanagement of its resources, and readily fall prey to law-enforcement agents of the host. McVeigh's operation, of which more later, is an example of poorly conceived terrorism.
To be the author of a successful terrorist enterprise demands superior intelligence and, further, an inclination to think in terms of absolutes. The moral sense is developed to the extreme where beliefs and the acts they give rise to divide sharply between good and bad, no intermediate position being tolerated. The ordinary person who lacks a sense of absolute right and wrong and admits to seeing both sides of a question is not disposed to be a terrorist, whereas one who identifies with, for example, the Drug War slogan "Zero tolerance" fits the terrorist profile in this respect. The extremist ideology necessary to support an act of terrorism may assume the form of fundamentalist or Puritan religion, providing the would-be author of a terrorist operation with a set of principles that justifies the infliction of violence on people with whom there is no personal acquaintance. Not all terrorism adopts the moral absolutes of a fundamentalist religion, but the combination of a tendency to think in terms of moral absolutes and adherence to one or other form of fundamentalist religion makes - for the rest of us - a nasty brew.
(2) The means of applying violence in an act of terrorism: Surprise is an important consideration for any terrorist attack. Immediate terror being the outcome wanted, the intention is to catch the selected population off guard and apply violence in concentrated form. Selection of target in respect to physical plant is an important consideration also. Symbolism comes into the picture here. The World Trade Center was the preeminent symbol of American capitalism. The "trade" going on in the World Trade Center was not, as the name suggests, trade in goods and services. It was rather trade in the world's financial assets, juggling other people's currencies, an activity a terrorist could have reason to dislike and want to "take out" symbolically. Worth mention also is the significance of the dating of an operation. September 11 is the date when a judge in New York City was due to pronounce sentence on a member of the terrorist group responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center operation. The court closed and sentencing was postponed when word of the current attack came in. The date implies contempt for the conduct of justice in America.
The complexity of a terrorist operation varies with the duration of the means employed. A simple operation on the order of a Hiroshima is a one-time only affair. To all appearances, the present bin Laden operation in the US is designed to spread over months or possibly years of violent acts, as new segments of the operation unfold. A principle is at work here, modeled on Pavlov. In Pavlov's operation, animals submit to an act of conditioning, and once conditioned stay that way. If the distance between a rewarded and an unrewarded stimulus is gradually decreased, the population (dogs) lose focus, and have trouble determining which way to go. Confusion takes over, and the dogs become neurotic. The aim of the terrorist in an operation of the evident complexity of bin Laden's may be to acclimatize the selected population to the occurrence of repeated episodes of violence. Initially, with exposure to the first of a succession of attacks, the terror evoked in a population is at a peak. The intensity of felt terror falls with the occurrence of repeated attacks. But - this is the Pavlov connection - with the occurrence of repeated attacks, the stunning quality of terror becomes the norm. A thoroughly terrorized population is manipulable and suggestible, a favorable condition from the terrorist standpoint.
(3) The intention of a terrorist operation: Besides the advantage gained from destruction of physical plant - if possible, plant with symbolic value - there is the advantage of "destroying" a fundamental part of the belief system which inspires a population with its sense of identity and hence unity. America was founded - long before the American Revolution - on principles which derive their value from Puritan religion, among them the principle that America is a favored nation. Blessed by a mantle of divine protection, nothing can seriously go wrong with America. Inviolability is basic to America's state of mind. If an operation can be mounted which explodes the Puritan assumption and erases the certainty of divine protection, a fundamental part of the belief system will have gone, and with it the sense America has of its identity (bin Laden's intention?). A process of dissolution and decay may follow.
Manipulation of an adversary's self-image is a function of propaganda. The constant replay on television of the World Trade Center in flames may favor the occurrence of the effect intended by the terrorist's propaganda. The repetition of the theme may seal the idea that America's divine protection has been withdrawn, the old days have gone, America has been abandoned. If it does, the response that follows may be an unprecedented panic and resort to ultimately suicidal options like "nuke 'em." An invitation to play "Armageddon" may not figure in bin Laden's intention, but it is not outside the range of possibility. (The scope of the intention behind the September 11 attack is not yet known.) America is portrayed as the Great Satan in the part of the world bin Laden comes from - itself a powerful piece of propaganda which America does not bother to contest. If bin Laden intends America to make good on its image and show beyond doubt that it is the Great Satan of propaganda, having America throw nuclear bombs around or spread toxic gas would be an excellent way of doing it.
Drug War operations may appear of relatively slight importance when consequences of the dimensions of atomic bombs are in the picture, but downplaying the significance of the Drug War should be resisted. The idea of a gray area between clear cut law enforcement and clear cut terrorism has been mentioned. There is a reason for preferring less of the gray and more of the clear cut in thinking about the War on Drugs - more to the question than the terrorist style of dress and behavior that Drug War operatives bring to their work. For example, the ideology used to justify the operation of the Drug War is the same Puritan ideology that waxes strong on the absolutes of good and evil. Insistence on the absoluteness of good and evil puts people who use illegal drugs and their suppliers in the realm of evil-doers, outside the domain of God's grace and fit for nothing less than God's wrath, or the best man can do to duplicate it - acts of terrorism in the making. Puritan ideology justifies the violence done to illegal drug users, gives Drug War operatives a psychological carte blanche.
The intention of a terrorist operation may be masked. Others have contended that the drive to ban the practice of illegal drug use in America may serve as a dry run for a future clamp-down on civil rights, the prohibition of illegal drug use being an ostensible intention and a clamp-down on civil rights being a masked intention. Practice control of illegal drug use, and you put yourself in a position to control a range of practices or expressions of ideas you find unwelcome, including the exercise of what has been called "excessive democracy" in questioning the ideology of global Free Trade. If the operation of the Drug War is an example of the art of terrorism, its intention may be of this masked as well as the more obvious kind.
If it is difficult to ignore America's War on Drugs when thinking of America's War on Terrorism, the reason is that they are analogous. What we now see in the War on Drugs may be viewed as a model of the War on Terrorism. It is even possible to envision three terrorist operations in progress - the first a bin Laden operation applying violence to a population in America with an intention that is open to speculation, the second a War on Terrorism with the stated intention of erasing terrorism and possibly a masked intention in addition - connected, it has been suggested, to the interests of the oil industry - and third the War on Drugs with a twin agenda of stamping out illegal drug use and serving as a dry run for a curb on civil rights.
Get to know someone in the targeted community at home (drug users), and you might get an inkling of the feeling evoked in others by America's engagements and intrigues in the Middle East (home to the September 11 terrorists). Listen to Drug War prisoners, and you might find yourself despising the Puritans in charge of Drug War operations for their betrayal of another America, the America inspired by ideas of freedom and justice for all. America with its bifold nature is also a country inspired by Revolution. Its principles are also drawn from treatises on the rights of man, inalienable through being inherent in the nature of being human. The Puritan ideology is balanced by an equally powerful, and more appealing, rational and revolutionary ideology to do with liberty and the rational exercise of virtue. The image of America abroad as the Great Satan is fair enough if Puritan America is the target of the propaganda. The other, Revolutionary America is not the butt of foreign propaganda, nor can it be. To pillory the Revolutionary America would be self-defeating. Deep down, everybody covets freedom.
A letter written by a prisoner of the War on Drugs supports the contention that the feelings a prisoner of the Drug War must somehow deal with may not be too different from the feelings pent up in a population ground down by the heel of American aggression (bin Laden talk). She writes that some prisoners were happy, if exultation counts as happiness, and cheered as news of the terrorist attack came in. Probably, only a few declared their feelings this passionately - those who did were harshly punished - and those who did said the attack brought out the bitterness they felt at the misuse of justice by a government responsible for Drug War operations and a public too lazy or too timid to do anything about it. America, in a perverted sense, was getting what it had coming - chickens coming home to roost. The sense of tit for tat felt by at least some Drug War prisoners calls attention to a possible element of the bin Laden design ignored by the media. In contrast to the assumption behind the slogan "United We Stand," which is that America stands united against a common foe, a significant part of the population, including a half-million prisoners of the War on Drugs and an uncounted number of ex- and future prisoners of this war and their family members, is unlikely to give unqualified support to a government with a new war on its hands. Below the surface, America is a land roiled by disaffection, a fact which bin Laden may hope to exploit.
A comment on the rationality or otherwise defining a terrorist intention: Taking enlightened self-interest as the mark of rationality, McVeigh's was an example of an irrational intention. The McVeigh operation was well conducted but futile in intention. McVeigh apparently wanted the then-Administration to back off from its aggressive pose to off-center religious groups like Waco. McVeigh had connections with a right-wing Evangelical group distantly related to Waco. A member of the group was executed on the date McVeigh picked for his action. But any intention to evoke a response commensurate with the Oklahoma City operation failed. Revenge against his person was the only response McVeigh drew, as the Administration evoked normal law enforcement procedures to put an end to McVeigh's life. That response, presumably, was not what McVeigh intended.
(4) The response to an act of terrorism: Home-grown terrorists appear to lack the smarts required for a terrorist of the caliber of a bin Laden. To calculate a course of action likely to follow an attack on the World Trade Center and have it turn to one's advantage requires a degree of insight and cunning beyond the reach of a loner like McVeigh. Here is a further attempt to elucidate the response bin Laden may have in mind.
Everyone agrees. Bin Laden is the mastermind behind the September 11 act. If America catches bin Laden, brings him to Washington, puts him on trial, and sentences him to death, all will be well again and we shall be free of terrorism. bin Laden figures that one out and plans the spectacle which follows. bin Laden interrupts proceedings with eloquent tirades on the nature of terrorism and America's hand in it. The world watches fascinated as the logic of the bin Laden argument sinks in: violence beckons violence, terror begets terror, you get out of the soup what you put in. Eloquence sways the minds of all but the most ideologically fixated. It undoes the cement of old thinking and sets minds and wills on fire across the world's downtrodden masses, ground under the heel of a self-centered America, friend of the rich and mighty, no friend of the poor (bin Laden theory). The day of execution comes, hysteria rises to a frenzy. As if on signal, the moment of bin Laden's death unleashes a fury sufficient to crush the foreign oppressor. bin Laden's intention is to evoke a revolutionary uprising? The prospect is unnerving but conceivable.
President Bush showed some understanding of the current operation, though not the nature of a rational response to it. He said the terrorist intention was to make us change our way of life. American principles of individual freedom were under attack. Bush called the operation "an attack on freedom." The dilemma is that in the presence of a terrorized population, measures that curtail the range of freedoms written into America's Constitution may not be difficult to introduce . Anti-terrorism measures have been presented to or passed by Congress so broadening the concept of terrorism as to threaten, for example, the freedom to assemble in future Seattles to protest the imposition of values on a society that has higher priorities than global Free Trade. If the Attorney-General's agenda becomes law, the government can define Seattle-type assemblies as terrorist and send protesters to prison for 20 years or life for the mere fact of attendance. Torture to extract confessions? Once on that slippery slope, and it's back to the Middle Ages. Before our eyes, we may see pages of freedom torn from the Constitution in the name of freeing America from terrorism. Could it be bin Laden's intention that America phase out its Constitution and thereby self-destruct?
Conclusion: It is too early to define bin Laden's intention or characterize the response America pursues as successful or unsuccessful from the terrorist perspective - falling into or evading the terrorism trap. Signs are that America's response will be a terrorist operation to persuade others to abandon terrorism, with possibly an ulterior or masked objective. That task will call for killing with all stops pulled out, branding America (and vassal states like Britain) as Satan's instrument in the ensuing cacophony. bin Laden may succeed on his own home turf if his intention is to vilify America and generate a new round of violence and counter-violence. But on America's own home turf? Here it is not too late to efface the image of an America wedded to the art of terrorism. Let America confess the error of its decades-old exercise in terrorism, close down the shameful episode we call the War on Drugs, and make a meaningful first move. That is to open the prison gates and let America's half-million Drug War prisoners find their way home. Take out the Puritan from America and put the Revolutionary back in. Restore the image of America as Land of the Free, not to mention Home of the Brave. Stick that in your pipe, bin Laden, and smoke it!
The Committee on Unjust Sentencing, Fall 2001
Note: the above has been submitted to a number of Drug War prisoners for their criticism. The results will be posted here when they come in.