Jun 072008

There is a kind of abnormal psychology in which actions have little relevance to their stated motives, but are primarily driven by the desire to achieve an enormous degree of notoriety through committing an act of violence

Another terrorist bombing, this time in Islamabad! Yet again, collapsed masonry and mangled motor vehicles. And yet once more the lives of individuals truncated or scarred by injury and shell shock. To quote a contemporary poet:

Someone’s political purpose was no doubt furthered
By these piles of rubble scattered in the street
And persons turned to stinking lumps of meat.

It is that ‘political purpose’ which is the subject of this brief essay.

There are those who contend that “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”. But this is foggy, judgemental thinking. For our purpose today, let us simply regard terrorism as any violent political act committed by non-state actors against non-combatants. Such a definition excludes violence committed by or against state actors, which would fall under the definitions of warfare, police action, atrocities or insurrection, according to its specifics.

The issue here is not whether or not terrorist violence for the furtherance of political aims, as defined here, is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. That kind of value judgement would depend on the side one is on. The question here is whether or not it is a prominent and effective component of successful revolutions or national liberation movements.

Let us see what history shows us. After the French Revolution of 1789, the guillotine was indeed kept busy severing heads. But it needs to be noted that the French Terror was directed, first, against the functionaries and perceived supporters and spies of the old order against whom the Revolution had taken place and, thereafter, during the Thermidorean Reaction, against various factions of the revolutionaries themselves.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a generalised armed uprising following which Lenin and his Bolshevik faction staged their coup d’etat. The continued violence was of the civil war against the Czarist White Russians and, later, the purges within the Bolsheviks themselves against successively the followers of Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev, Zinoviev, etc.

The Chinese Revolution comprised the campaigns of an armed revolutionary force — the Communist Red Army led by Mao Zedong — during the 1930s and 1940s and, very much later, the internecine violence of the Red Guards against the Communists themselves during the Great Cultural Revolution.

Nearer to home, in Iran, the clerical followers of Ayatollah Khomeini used the Pasdaran and the revolutionary courts against the functionaries and followers of the Pahlavi regime and, later, against the very leftists and liberals who had been their erstwhile partners in bringing about the Revolution of 1979.

In each of these cases, there was violence aplenty. As Lenin said, “A revolution is not a pink tea party”. Violence was used against the pre-revolutionary state in bringing about the change of regime. After success in that endeavour, violent tactics cleaned up perceived remnants of the old order, and then resolved factional disputes among the revolutionaries themselves (in that strange process where successful revolutions seem to devour their own children). As Mao Zedong put it, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.”

Now, one may well consider remarks like this cold-blooded and the entire pre- and post-revolutionary process unacceptably wasteful of human life. But the point that needs assertion is that, at no point, barring occasional aberrant behaviour accompanying the breakdown of the state, do we see terror against non-state actors being systematically used as part of the overall revolutionary strategy. In fact, the Marxist revolutions of Lenin and Mao explicitly and categorically rejected terrorist tactics and denounced the perpetrators of such occurrences.

As for national liberation movements, the largest and most significant of these, that of our own Subcontinent, was driven by the non-violent agitational campaigns of Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and by the parliamentary constitutionalism of Quaid-e Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The terror tactics of, say, the Bengali terrorist groups or Bhagat Singh in the Punjab, were aberrations that played a negligible role in the freedom movements of the Subcontinent.

Elsewhere, too, we see national freedom attained through non-violent agitation (e.g. South Africa, Kenya, Ghana), constitutional negotiation (Sri Lanka, Nigeria), armed struggle (Turkey, Vietnam, Algeria, Bangladesh), military coup d’etat (Egypt, Libya) and a host of other means. Terror against non-combatants was not employed as a major strategic component of these various liberation strategies, such aberrations as the early — and temporary — use of terror in the Algerian, Kenyan and South African movements notwithstanding.

But come the Media Age of the 21st century and things have changed. Beginning with the spectacular attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001, which many of us saw happening in real time on our TV sets, terrorist tactics have become the principal component of the campaigns of the so-called Islamist militants. While most dramatically manifested in America, it has had and has continued to have a far greater destructive role in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and, of most immediate concern, Pakistan. The question that this essay began with relates to the political objectives of this kind of terrorism.

I trust my readers will not be discomfited if I divert for a moment to mention Erostratus. This person, tired of his own obscurity, sought to achieve historic fame in the year 356 BC by burning down a sacred temple in the city of Ephesus (located in present-day Turkey). Any act of violence, whether positive or negative, would do for Erostratus’ purpose. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story of the same name, an unknown individual publicises the date and place he intends to commit suicide. In Don Levy’s film of the story, this person engages an advertising agency for this.

Does my reader see what I am suggesting? There is a kind of abnormal psychology in which actions have little relevance to their stated motives, but are primarily driven by the desire to achieve an enormous degree of notoriety — anonymously or by name, posthumously or otherwise — through committing an act of violence. If an individual is too ignorant or too unskilled or too helpless to create or build anything, he can at least establish his significance in an anonymous universe by committing an act of massive destruction. The fact that it is done in cold blood, without any personal motive of acquisition or revenge, against anonymous victims against whom he may harbour no specific rancour, adds to the sweetness of the deed. The perpetrator has struck his victims with the impersonality of a Force of Nature descending upon them as a cyclone or tsunami or earthquake might have. And, this being the Age of the Media, everyone will hear about it, and, hearing, tremble.

With such an immense sense of potency proffered by modern terrorism to persons psychologically castrated by history, no other motive — no coherent political doctrine or cause or crusade — is really needed as justification. Terrorism, I would suggest to my readers, is not the weapon of the Weak, but of the Vicious.

The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet

Source:: Daily Times, 7/6/2008

 Posted by at 3:26 pm

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