Since beginning this blog together, Stan and I have continued a running discussion on what distinguishes terrorism from other forms of military siege or action. To isolate a single specific cogent meaning that fits every popular usage would likely be impossible. Stan at one point suspected the major difference in usage stemmed from the weapon used. We went through a pile of different definitions and I at least don’t feel any closer to a single word I could graft over the entirety of usages or even a three or four entry definition that could cover most usages.
The coordinated attacks on Paris last week add another wrinkle to this and give me the sense that the defining element of the phenomena hinted toward in the increased cultural fixation on the word in the last 15-20 years has been defined more frequently by the narrative implied by the target than the manner or strategy of attack. What’s called “peacekeeping” or “intervention” tends toward the striking of strategic targets, while what’s labeled “terrorism” tends toward symbolic targets. There is little traditional military strategic value in the Bataclan Theater, and it seems difficult to think the attackers, whoever they were, wanted to or thought they could take over Paris or France as a whole through a couple coordinated strikes. Formal seizure of territory is no longer a common goal of military actions. Satellite power and puppet governments make more sense than taking over the actual governance and ownership of a territory. Why buy the cow etc.
The idea of France being under fundamentalist religious law for any sustained period of time seems similarly ridiculous, at least with the current population, even if the military power of ISIS were expanded to the point of being comparable to the major UN powers. The cultural differences are too great and especially now as ISIS doesn’t have military power anywhere even remotely comparable to the UN powers. The significant aftershock of a large attack like the one in France or even smaller ones therefore would be pitched in two directions, mirror images of the same morale problem.
What is the tactical effect the terrorist desires from the terrorist act? It’s not seizure of territory clearly. It can’t be the actual installation of religious fundamentalism in the territory struck. There are only two actual end gains I can think of from the perspective of the terrorist organization.
The first is the more obvious. Every press release or statement by a terrorist organization “claiming” an attack has two broad points which are stated each time. The first statement is “This is in retaliation for (insert western military intervention),” the (relatively) logical strategic impetus toward attack then the second “…and because of Western decadence (many roughly equivalent phrasings exist.)” This first reason stated, the one that anything could be done about, is categorically ignored by the attacked state and the corresponding government, at least in the US. reliably since the beginning of the W. regime. The first reason isn’t stated as a communication to peoples attacked but as a recruitment megaphone; by aligning themselves with the counter-cultural capital inherent in broad civilian misgiving in the middle east (or in immigrant populations elsewhere), ISIS or similar organizations legitimize themselves with domestic populations. The elements in propaganda intended to be broadcast to the people inside an organization/country are usually quite different from the ones intended to be focused on from without. In an internationally broadcast message, the elements meant to draw the eyes of the foreign and domestic populations need to be pitched in ways where the likeliness of hearing one decreases the likeliness of hearing the other.
The second reason, “western decadence” is pitched at the attacked population. It’s intentionally far more vague, as vagaries make for more dynamic political capital after the fact. The western decadence is pitched in the most broad terms possible to incense the widest range of people. Paranoias of vagueness run on the fuel of victims’ collective energies to imagine the worst; paranoias of the specific have no such engine to propagate themselves. Specifics isolate, vagueness spreads. A wide net.
The aesthetic progression of terrorism from the 1970s to the present has centered around the creation of a symbolic malignant other in the form of the terrorist, a branding campaign supported equally by the terrorist and the governments of the terrorized territory. The terroristic/international memetic guerrilla militia meanwhile attempts to move toward a less coherent display of violence to weaken the sense of control in the attacked population. The shared antagonism between the two groups needs to be legitimated by continued violent flare-ups in order to sustain its strategic benefits as a means of molding public opinion. If you have a territory with multiple non-state actors vying for power that aren’t larger enough to control the entirety of the state, foreign invasion by a power like the US can be advantageous to a specific faction in their organization against the others even if the supposed endgame of taking on the US isn’t intended seriously. The mutual antagonisms so convenient for both sides in propping up national identities during the Cold War are extended into a changed paradigm. In the manner of a reality contest show, different antagonists within a limited spectrum are rolled out before the public to be judged as a sufficiently stirring dramatic foil.
By mobilizing as a relatively amorphous idea, waging “memetic warfare” as Howard Bloom might call it, the terrorist movement gains the decided advantage of being able to harness the publics’ incredible capacity for self-centered misreading in both directions. Terrorism works on the principle that if a thing manages to not effectively or coherently be about anything, the outside observers will consider it to be directly bearing them in some correlative measure. The insults against “western living” are meant, of course, as taunts. To try to isolate specific tangible targets we could call strongholds of “western living” would yield about as much stuff of use as looking at a person’s actual mother to understand a “your mom” joke. In asymmetrical warfare that isn’t centered on a traditional linear notion of victory, engagement inherently favors the smaller entity.
The US invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the wake of 9/11 were not, as they were initially pitched to the public and discussed in mainstream venues at the time of the initial strikes and for a while afterward, wars of ideas or based around the adoption by one side or the other of a national or religious identity. The wars themselves were a way of creating oppositional identity to cover for a lack of shared identity that likely sits at the center of the US and in the disaffect that drives people to join ISIS. In a time of widespread discontent the most valuable branding a thing can have is an image of not being the other thing.