Coverage of the murder of a British soldier in London and a subsequent stabbing of a French soldier in Paris by presumably Muslim extremists demonstrates how governments and some media outlets misuse the term â€œterrorism.â€
After 9/11 â€œterrorism,â€ and its subset â€œIslamic terrorism,â€ became the favoured terms used to describe most types of politically motivated violence. That serves the purposes of government security agencies, many of which have expanded their powers of arrest and detention without charge, warrantless search and surveillance and legal scope of authority under the rubric of anti-terrorism legislation passed in the wake of 9/11. New Zealand is no exception in this regard, and the current proposal to amend the GCSB ACT 2003 is a continuation of that trend.
Branding political violence as terrorism allows the state to ignore standard notions of civil liberties and rights under the law because of the “special” nature of the terrorist threat. It justifies the profiling of entire communities of people who share basic traits or affinities with terrorist suspects. It fuels the growth of private and public security agencies focused on thwarting unconventional attacks at the same time that it militarizes domestic security, expands intelligence networks and re-focuses the strategic orientation of the military itself. It plays on fear and uncertainty for purposes unrelated to the actual threat posed by terrorism.
For the uncritical media, labeling all acts of political violence as terrorism feeds on sensationalism in pursuit of profit. Some lump all political violence done by designated â€œothersâ€ (most recently, Muslims) as terrorist acts in order to promote specific political agendas. Thus the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, which was a standard guerilla operation against a symbol of US power, is portrayed by mainstream US outlets as a terrorist assault on American existential values rather than as a low-level threat against a defended compound that was ignored prior to its materializing.
Others reproduce government narratives about terrorism without deconstructing ulterior motives. This symbiotically serves both sides but leaves the truth somewhere in between. It is therefore worth distinguishing between political violence in general, and hate crimes and terrorism in particular.
Political violence is that which is done for political or ideological reasons. It may be due to grievance, fear, opportunism, or latent tensions based on long-standing differences. It may act as a precipitant or catalyst for broader violence by igniting sectarian conflicts. There are many reasons for and many types of political violence. Not all are terrorism.
Regicide is the killing of kings (in this day and age Game of Thrones fans are the most familiar with the concept). Political fratricide is the killing of partisans by their colleagues (some of which can be done symbolically, as recent New Zealand Labour Party ructions have shown). Homicidal attacks on presidents, premiers, prime ministers and politicians of all stripes are political murders by virtue of the victimâ€™s status as much as the perpetratorâ€™s motives. Lethal riots and clashes between political factions are mass political violence. None of these are terrorism.
Hate crimes are crimes committed out of loathing and contempt. They are rooted in fear, ignorance and frustration or prejudice grounded in historical enmity, political conflict or cultural difference. Although they may have symbolic purpose, they are often acts of desperation and usually are highly personalized or individualistic in nature.
Terrorism is an act of symbolic violence against civilians, often in mass settings. It attempts to raise the political costs of pursuing a given policy line by undermining the will of the subject population supporting it. The objective is to impose the political will of the perpetrator by fomenting a pervasive feeling of dread and uncertainty in the subject population that renders them paralyzed in terms of response, and to reassure adherents that through such acts ideological goals can be achieved against powerful enemies.
The target is different than the subject and is chosen precisely because of the symbolism inherent in its selection. Thus the World Trade Center and Pentagon were chosen as targets by al-Qaeda because of their symbolism and the impact the attacks would have on the will of the US government and people. The attacks also sought to demonstrate to the Muslim ummah that armed resistance to Western secularism was possible. Whether or not terrorism actually accomplishes its goals (the record is mixed), the rationale of terrorism focuses on the erosion of will in a subject entity so as to undermine support for a particular stance or position on a contentious issue.
Terrorism has been used as a tactic in warfare, by States against their own people, by criminal groups, and by non-state actors. The majority of modern terrorist acts have been perpetrated by states in and out of warfare. Criminal organizations regularly terrorize individuals and communities as a form of intimidation. In this era terrorism is most often associated with non-state actors espousing anti-status quo views based upon ideological grounds.
The murder of the British soldier was a politically motivated hate crime. Two disgruntled British born Muslims (one a convert), apparently backed by a few others, committed a homicide in broad daylight because they are unhappy with British foreign policy in Muslim lands. They may also have had personal motives and grievances. Yet the Cameron government called the murder â€œterrorism-related,â€ convened an emergency meeting of its most senior anti-terrorism group, placed all security services on increased alert, and spoke of possible copycat killings.
Commentators have suggested that this represents a new phase of Islamic terrorism, whereby terrorists are home grown, grassroots, self-radicalized and decentralized small groups or â€œlone wolfâ€ (individual) operators such as those involved in the Boston Marathon bombings or Fort Hood shootings.
That may be true, as the campaign against al-Qaeda has made prohibitive its ability to carry out large-scale attacks such as 9/11 or the Madrid train bombings by eliminating those who have the capability to undertake them. In response, al-Qaeda has morphed into an irregular warfare network that seeks to pursue low-level operations in the West while taking advantage of the instability in North and Sub-Saharan Africa caused by regime collapse or state failure in order to secure territorial and political gains.
The change of tactics against Western targets is a sign of desperation and futility. Such low-level acts of violence pose no existential threat to the subject populations and governments. Few have the potential to involve mass casualties in numbers that would undermine the collective will. Even if carried out repeatedly, it is arguable whether they can achieve the objective of changing the overall thrust of Western policy vis a vis Islam (less arguable is the suggestion that, in fact, al-Qaeda operations did alter the thrust of Western approaches to Islam). In other words, whether they were initially successful or not, al-Qaeda’s tactics in the West have been reduced from ideologically-based, mass-targeted terrorism to low level hate crimes.
The contrast in government approach and media coverage is remarkable when the violence is meted out against rather than by Muslims. In early May a Muslim shop keeper was hacked to death with a machete in Birmingham. CCTV caught a Caucasian suspect leaving the scene and the police labeled the murder as a hate crime. In the aftermath of the soldierâ€™s murder there has been an upsurge in violence against British Muslims, all of which has been treated as hate crimes. Likewise, in the US targeted violence against Muslims is officially viewed as hate crimes, but Muslim violence is most often framed as terrorist-inspired.
There is certainly overlap between terrorism and politically motivated hate crimes in some instances, but the preponderance of low-level acts of politically motivated violence is the latter even if the perpetrators are Muslim. That is more so now that al-Qaeda has been decimated.
That means that such acts of political violence should be treated by the justice system as common crimes rather than as special events. Terrorism is properly understood as a criminal conspiracy to commit mass murder for ideological reasons. Hate crimes are independent acts of individual or small group violence done for ascriptive reasons. Criminal justices systems already address both.
It also means that there is no genuine justification for creating a separate body of legislation specifically designed to counter terrorism as a special sort of political violence, much less justify the intrusions on civil liberties and individual rights that such legislation entails. Whereas the large scale attacks of 9/11, Madrid, London and Bali appeared to justify in the minds of some a war-like approach by Western states to the political violence known as Islamic terrorism, that is no longer true if it ever was.
The conflation of hate crimes and terrorism serves the purposes of the perpetrators as well as the security agencies that confront them. It serves the self-interest of the corporate media, which publicizes the messages of both sides in order to generate revenue. What is not served is the common good brought about by informed consideration of the causes and effects of different types of political violence, as well as the remedies for them.