Terror, Virtue and Barbarism
The powerful opening of the United States Constitution begins: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The significance of this political experiment did not resonate across the Atlantic in Robespierre’s speech at the French National Convention in 1794: “If the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terror — virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.” Lost in this rhetoric is the caveat that terror becomes barbaric without virtue. The question begged is whether or not “terror” can ever be linked to “virtue” or is always “barbaric.”
The actions that get labeled as “terrorist” existed long before the French revolution. Indeed, the history of humanity is one in which barbarism plays a major role, even if the barbarians are always seen as others. War is certainly barbaric and creates a wide range of terror no matter what the virtuous excuse for waging it. Indeed the French king was cruel, but chopping off his head was no less a barbaric act. The contemporary “war on terror” seeks to return to Robespierre rather than the founding fathers. There is no question that the barbaric atrocities committed by ISIS and their ilk are conscious acts of terror, more often against fellow religionists than traditional infidels. Yet, somehow, drone strikes that wipe out innocent victims or the current Saudi-led bombing campaign killing thousands of ordinary Yemeni citizens is seen as virtue that keeps such terror from being barbaric. Rather than damning such acts as a plague on both their houses, the ethical alibi is that fighting terror (or assumed terror) with terror is a virtue.
The past couple of weeks have seen widely reported terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Medina, not to mention the stream of individual hateful killings like the semi-automatic blasting in Orlando. Such acts of terror have become so common place that reality now seems more a reflection of gun-blazing Hollywood blockbusters that film as a reflection of reality. The difference remains that in reality death is not a mere acting script but a painful and devastating reality. It must unfortunately be admitted that terrorism can no more be eliminated from our species than the cooperative spirit which has allowed societies to maintain the “general Welfare.” There is really nothing original in this sin, just a recognition that angels and devils coexist in this world, not some pre-thought afterlife.
Setting the historical etymology aside, I suggest that the contemporary notion of “terrorism” suffers from the dilemma posed by Robespierre. Terror without virtue will always be barbaric, but is it the case that virtue without terror must be impotent? This is clearly the rationale for state-sponsored terrorism, the eye-for-an-eye and cluster-bomb-for-a-suicide-bombing mentality that justifies an arms industry that rakes in billions of dollars. Were it possible to kill or neutralize every “terrorist,” would that save our species? This assumes that terror is created in a vacuum, that there are not multiple reasons that feed into acts considered to be barbaric. This ignores the fact that terrorism easily becomes a mode of last resort when views of virtue clash. I am not suggesting that all framing of what constitutes virtue are equal; they are not. But terror does not spring up sui generis. There are often rather logical reasons why people resort to desperate means. The bombing near the Prophet’s mosque in Medina is indeed an act of terror, but so are the multiple beheadings carried out in public by the Wahhabi regime. One does not justify the other, but neither can lay a claim to virtue.
Maybe we should avoid use of the term “terrorism” altogether, since it suggests that only some kinds of barbaric acts deserve the label. Is it not really a case of intolerance, as though justice only applies to certain individuals? Is it any wonder that the main playground of ISIS is in dictatorial states or against global actors? Peel off the veneer of jihadist rhetoric and the idea that terror is unrelated to economic deprivation and political oppression becomes ludicrous. There is no virtue in terror and never can be. But, as Montaigne wrote some five centuries ago, “Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice.” The same should now be said for terrorism.