THESE days terrorism is a fashionable topic. The entire world seems to be involved in the war on terror, whether it is those who claim to be fighting terrorism or those who are perpetrating it.
Moreover, there are opposing claims about terrorism. As the popular, albeit somewhat modified, adage goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, indicating that we can distinguish between one set of violent activities and another. So, where do these opposing interpretations leave us?
Can terrorism be used as a neutral term defining all acts of violence by non-state actors against civilians? Such a suggestion is bound to encounter opposing viewpoints that it is not just non-state actors that can be termed as terrorists but states too must be considered as such. For example, a lot of people would be willing to call the US a terrorist state.
As the US State Department sees it, terrorism pertains to violence perpetrated by non-state actors including individuals or groups on civilian populations with a view to achieving political objectives. Interestingly, the US view includes acts of destabilising governments because this would then include American and British citizens or some European nationals as well as those who work as private contractors in numerous African states and are often involved in destabilising governments.
Referring to the definition debate the term can be used in terms that do not involve state actors. There are two important components of the definition that must be considered. First, the purpose of violence which means that non-state actors use violence to gain certain political objectives. It is not important to attach a value-judgment at this stage because whether or not we agree with the objective the fact is that certain individuals and groups opt for violence to attain their goals. Be it the Palestinians, Chechens, Kashmiris, Al Qaeda, Taliban or others, it is a case of groups using violence to achieve their respective goals. We as observers reserve the right to agree or disagree with the cause of violence.
Second, the perpetrators of violence in this case happen to be individuals or groups that do not have legal or constitutional sanction to use coercive methods against civilians. This makes non-state actors fundamentally different from state actors. The difference lies in the sanction that states have to impose and use violence as an essential part of state power.
Those who disagree must consider that the actual problem or the difference between a state and non-state actor’s violence lies in the nature of the nation-state itself. Be it the First World or the Third World, we all live in a state system that has connections with European history and the state system. The nation-state, which evolved in Europe after the breakdown of monarchies, imposed certain tasks on the state and was based on a social contract between state and society. According to this system, people owed their allegiance to the state, cherished it and paid taxes in return for certain tasks performed by the state. Securing the people and a predefined territory was one of the primary responsibilities of the state. The people’s allegiance, in return, was unquestioned —‘my country right or wrong’.
The political system, especially the concept of democracy, as a form of government also evolved as a system that would represent the wishes of the people. However, the problem began when the state itself became less representative of the majority of the people or those living in certain areas of the state. This naturally strained relations between state and society. More specifically, problems arose when the ruling elite pursued their own interest or those of the majority without any concern for the minority. Given the absence of the means of negotiating interests, individuals or groups opted to use violence to affect state behaviour.
In such circumstances, the state tends to use violence to counter violence. However, in the current nation-state system the state has the legal and constitutional authority to use violence. In fact, states that choose force can be called oppressors or accused of using aggression against their own people or other states to retain external or internal hegemony. From a moral perspective, this can be as good or bad as an act of terrorism. But the point being raised here is that from the perspective of definition, the term applied to state violence is technically different from its application to non-state actors.
It is after we accept terrorism as a neutral term rather than a value-laden concept that we can ask why there is a phenomenal increase in such activities. There are two categories of terrorism: (a) violence linked to specific territory-based issues and (b) terrorist acts meant to support and implement specific political or religious ideologies. This is where we would get into differentiating between what is happening in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya for example and the Al Qaeda. We are also at liberty to agree or disagree with a particular cause.
The fact of the matter is that ruling elites have captured states all over the world and political systems do not cater to the interests of minorities. We live in an age where due to the dispersion of the tools of violence it has become possible for non-state actors to access potentially lethal technologies and use these to gain attention. Weapons, which were once meant to be used by state militaries that had a monopoly over violence, are now being used by non-state actors to force policy changes at the state level.
The real problem is that states are becoming increasingly less relevant or redundant as far as representing the will of their citizens is concerned. The decreasing relevance of the state had come under discussion a few years ago in relation to the growing power of multinationals. The fact is that both multinationals and terrorists are crowding out the influence and moral authority of the state. What is a needed at this point is to think deeply about the future of the state and its relevance for citizens.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.
Courtesy: Daily Dawn, 16/1/2009