The suicide bombings in Sri Lanka two months ago (April 2019) triggered a bout of short lived concern for the innocent victims of these atrocities. The incident has now been relegated to history and superseded by more daily Brexit concerns and weekly Trump-isms. However, terrorism is not history and sadly will visit us and others again and again. We need to remember that over 300 men, women and children had their lives ended by the actions of people unknown to them. Whoever perpetrates such acts, do need to be continually condemned as committing crimes against humanity. However, the narrow extent and momentary fervour of the western media coverage has not served to increase an understanding of the extent of acts of terror or the motives and beliefs of the numerous perpetrators.
Past and present western media coverage whilst expressing momentary horror also simultaneously exposes the hypocrisy and double standards of those promoting the western bourgeois perspective. The general reporting and discussions on terrorism has also demonstrated the hold of dualistic modes of thinking among the liberal intellectual, political and economic elite. The world according to these nationalist and religious type dualistic frameworks is divided into good people and bad people. The good people are those who do what a specific dominant elite want them to say or do (including issuing and following instructions to kill) and the bad people are those who say or do something which opposes that particular dominant elite. Such simplistic bifurcations of humanity and their actions conveniently ignore the essential commonality and alienated humanity of those people who carry out such barbaric acts and importantly – the supportive connections they have with their communities and the bulk of the world’s population.
This article, (and the next, Part 2) therefore, will delve beneath the current superficial surface symptoms, dualist formulations and the confirmation bias which clutters the media coverage of such events. Media partiality and bias prevents an honest and detailed evaluation of the continuous and widespread use of terror and other crimes against humanity. For example: With regard to terrorist acts we need to ask not just a) what do terrorists do – and condemn it, but ask, b) just who are those who carry out such atrocities, c) what do these perpetrators understand about the world, and d) how important are their beliefs in allowing them to perpetrate their crimes. In asking and answering such questions we shall view the world much closer to its complex reality, than it appears through the distorting lens of one or other of the bourgeois nationalist or religious sectarian ideologies.
a) What is it all terrorists do?
It is obvious that terrorists use guns, explosives and other harmful materials (fluids, gasses, powders, poisons) to perpetrate acts calculated not only to kill and maim individuals and groups, but to instil fear and dislocation into the wider communities which have become their targets. Invariably, the targets for acts of terror include, men, women and children of all ages, who are not directly involved in any aggressive actions towards the perpetrators. Furthermore, it is also the case that the human targets of these terrorist acts are also unknown to the perpetrators. There is a revealing contrast. In the case of most murders the victims are usually known personally by the agents of death, whereas most acts of terror deliberately target people who are not individually known to the perpetrators. In short; terrorism is predominantly a violent act of a few, who are usually well known to each other, (eg the murder cell, unit or team) against numbers of a group that are not personally known to them.
If the above is a reasonably accurate summary of what terrorists do and to whom, then it follows that whoever does such acts, should be accurately described as terrorists, no matter how they choose to describe themselves. Similarly, those who aid and abet, order, or otherwise enable such acts, are also implicated in those acts of terror, no matter how they describe or rationalise their direct or indirect participation. This latter point is an important one to recognise and understand in considering terrorist activities. Terrorists are rarely, if ever, isolated individuals who decide for themselves who should be a target, what methods and weapons should be used, the location and the timing of the act. Even those who strap on a suicide vest and go alone into a community to explode it are merely the end product of a chain of events and reasoning which always include interactions with other human beings. These other enablers have motivations, roles and tasks which are a necessary composite element of the eventual pre-planning and subsequent act or multiple acts of terror.
The existence of a chain of command and influence (ie the necessary human agents of terror) which Iinks planning and execution is also true of those acts of terror initiated and perpetrated by the elites within Nation States as well as those perpetrated by other forms of official or unofficial organisation. A direct chain of command or a more amorphous, but crucial, sphere of human influence is always the case; whether the terror is motivated by religious, political considerations or so-called national security measures. The idea of an isolated, unhinged individual acting alone with no connections or links with others, is a facile idea that has no connection with reality. So to further enhance our understanding of this process of motivation, planning and implementation we need to examine the shared reasoning which informs such acts.
b) So who commits acts of terror?
It is also increasingly obvious from the information available that those who engage in terrorist crimes against humanity, are not uneducated, mentally disturbed, or otherwise deficient in the ability to skilfully think and plan. It has already been suggested that those who organised and perpetrated the more recent crimes in Sri Lanka were well educated individuals, some at least with university levels of study. Likewise, those Islamists who flew aircraft into the Twin Towers, were from privileged and educated backgrounds. But the existence of a well educated resume for successful terrorist atrocities also applies to the state sponsored acts of terror by regimes such as those controlled by Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussain as well as those in Iran, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It is also well known that practically all secular based nations (including those in Europe and America) have departments or sections which, along with their military elites, are no strangers to higher education entrance qualifications nor to planning and implementing acts of destructive terror.
So if we are not to be nationalistically biased or dualistically sectarian, in identifying those who perpetrate acts of terror, we must include in this analysis the well educated elites of Western Capitalist countries. These also initiate, support or otherwise sponsor acts of terror. The acts of terror planned and executed by all these actors, religious, political or state sponsored, are the results of a complex process of understanding and reasoning with regard to the world as they experience it. In general the elite state sponsors or enablers of terror are motivated by understandings which are informed by the alleged economic and/or political needs of the country they govern. Generally, they try to remove threats to these economic interests by diplomatic and peaceful means both of which can include bribery or intimidation. However, if these soft power manoeuvres fail, and the threat is considered sufficiently great, then organised terror can become an instrument of overt or covert government policy.
Thus the terror of relentless area and fire bombing of German cities and the Nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by the Allies (UK and USA) in the Second World War, were well thought out, meticulously planned actions by otherwise rational, well trained and educated actors. They had a definite result in mind and a carefully calculated brutal means to achieve it. Nevertheless these were clearly acts of terror, aimed at killing and terrorising non-combatant, men, women and children in pursuit of national interests – as defined by the governing elites and their military commanders. Similarly, the Japanese and German blitzkriegs in Europe and the east were studiously considered, meticulously planned acts of terror against the citizens of the countries the axis powers wished to conquer, control or eliminate. Practically all these various elites and their supporters considered and defended their actions as rational and justified. They did so by invoking a higher purpose, such as, (in these last cases) the ‘national interest’, which was then used to justify the killing of non-combatants and other innocents as a rational endeavour to serve that purpose.
I shall consider these higher purposes in the next section but merely note here that non-state terrorists also have their own version of higher purpose which by a similar process allows the irrational murder of other human beings to be presented as their own sectarian form of rationality. However, it has become common in the mass media to apply different standards of judgement to the acts of terror perpetrated by states and those by non-state actors. Yet in fact those often considered and described as mindless terrorists, such such as Islamists, Right Wing Nationalists and other non-state terrorists obviously also think things through and more often than not plan their actions meticulously. Their reasons and understandings are often informed by similar or even the direct opposite of those informing other elites. It should be obvious that the national interests pursued by one elite using acts of terror against those who resist their actions, are frequently viewed as unjustified acts of oppression by those in receipt of those acts. Resisting oppression or revenging acts of terror by reciprocal acts of terror is often a downward spiral descending to the depths of depravity.
We should not forget that the understanding reached by many non-state terrorists who experience (directly or indirectly) what they consider to be oppression, exploitation or marginalisation of themselves and others of the same or similar circumstances, invariably promotes a reaction. The experience of the millions of people who have suffered economically, socially and politically as a consequence of the legacy of colonial, imperialist and now neo-liberal phases of global capitalism has created anger and frustration among them and later generations. That anger and frustration felt by millions also produces a small minority whose frustration and anger has reached such a boiling point that they feel it justified and necessary to hit back at the actual direct or indirect (often imagined) sources of this oppression. From among these angry minorities, within their wider communities, are the potential recruits for planning and perpetrating acts of terror. But anger against something is often not enough. As noted above we next need to consider the different higher purposes prescribed and available to those few who go on to plan and commit acts of terrorism.
c) What do terrorists believe?
I suggest it takes considerably more than negative experiences to turn a human being into someone who will kill and maim numerous other human beings. Even the most negative experiences of people under the present capitalist mode of production lead more often than not to depression and even suicide than it leads them to become terrorists. Yet it is this negative experience together the additional reliance on something more which is why acts of terror are the actions of a relative few, but a few who, undeniably share a common ideology with their wider communities. Moreover, as indicated, in contrast to most cases of murder and manslaughter, it takes a lot of cold calculation, together with a belief in a higher purpose for human beings to arrive at a decision to destroy the lives of unknown men women and children. Unfortunately, the history of humanity to date has produced a number of belief systems which serve as a higher purpose which justifies a suspension of the humanist essence of our humanity and serves to excuse or rationalise the destruction of other human beings.
Also as already indicated, the abstract concept nation and the ‘national interest’ is the general default ‘higher purpose’ within the bourgeois nationalist paradigm and this has been the rationale for numerous crimes against humanity. This is so whether this is the humanity of their own citizens or of other countries citizens. Elites, past and present, often consider serious opposition from members of their own people as threatening the national interests, when in fact it may only be the interests of the existing elite which is actually threatened. More often than not the use of a higher purpose rationalisation by politicians and military leaders is just a convenient cover for the much lower purpose of maintaining their own elite privilege. Mass incarceration or massacres of their own citizens by elites is not something missing from the arsenal of terrorist punishments available to aggressive and insecure state elites. So it is belief in a secular higher purpose cover story which is an important element in the mind set of those programmed to execute acts of terror by ‘following orders’ or merely ‘doing their duty’ to the state.
For the religious fundamentalist the higher purpose allowing, or even requiring, the killing of innocent men, women and children is doing their gods will. Perhaps not surprisingly, they and their enablers, assume they understand their imagined gods will which wonderfully expresses what the fundamentalists own will has previously decided upon. Perhaps it should be obvious that it is necessary for those who become terrorists in pursuit of an ideological cause should deeply and firmly believe in the end they imagine they are serving. However, we do know that such beliefs are not a biological product of each generation at birth. In fact these beliefs are a social product processed through education and culture from early childhood through adolescence to adulthood. This no less true of nationalist ideologies as well as religious ideologies. Without a constant reiteration and reinforcement of one or other of the belief systems, from which these higher purposes are derived, the promoters of terrorist acts and their perpetrators would lack the current menu of dubiously convenient rationalisations.
So the well educated pilot of a stealth fighter or bomber tasked to take out a target in the middle of a family wedding or community outing, is helped to reconcile this act by the fact that he or she has been trained by and is merely following, instructions from a political or military leader. Furthermore, he or she will also feel exonerated by being informed that those orders to kill are part of serving the communities (or states) national interests as interpreted by a political or military elite. In the cases of state orchestrated terror, any, and every instance of ‘collateral damage’ (a euphemism for the murder of unknown non-combatants) is acceptable. This is so even though occasional expressions of regret are later offered. With one missing dimension, the same ideological support structure applies to the religiously inspired terrorist. The well educated Islamic perpetrator of a terrorist act, tasked to obliterate the lives of a target community, is also helped by the fact that they are following the ideas, training and instructions of some religiously inspired ‘leader’. Furthermore, he or she will feel exonerated by being informed that they are serving the communities religious interests as outlined in their gods revealed scriptural texts as interpreted by their chosen religious elite.
The missing dimension, in the case of current Islamic inspired terrorists, is the absence of a need to escape their terrorist act unharmed and undetected. This arises from fact that they have been convinced by their belief system that killing themselves along with their targets, will be rewarded by eternal life in an imagined patriarchal paradise. In these cases, there is an imagined higher power reward, which is judged better than their secular analogues who merely receive state issued medals or promotion in rank for successful missions. In most other acts of terror, (state sponsored, nationalist, anarchist, zionist, etc.) the terrorists are invariably not intending to kill themselves. They are planning to escape unharmed and though recognising the possible dangers, they have no intention of being killed.
Even if the latter actually happens it will be the result of an unintended consequence. The only other notable exceptions to this suppression of a survival instinct among terrorists were the Kamikaze Japanese flyers, the Kaiten mariners (and their German plane ramming pilot analogues) during the latter stages of the Second World War. With these exceptions in mind, the ideological attachment to their religious belief gives the promoters and perpetrators of terrorists acts from within the Islamic community an advantage over other forms of secular or nation-state terrorism. This is because, physical escape from the crime scene by the perpetrator is a complex process no longer needed to be planned and implemented.
R. Ratcliffe (June 2019)
[Part 2 will include further comments on the ideological foundations of terrorist acts; confirmation bias in religious and nationalist ideologies; and the terrorist rejection of parts of bourgeois modernity.]