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Symbolic Politics


new internationalist
issue 161 - July 1986

Symbolic politics
Beneath the brutality, the posturing and the theatrics of a kidnapping or a hostage-taking is a subtle political process. Jorge Nef looks at how terrorist actions alter the political environment and may pave the way to a right-wing backlash.

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Illustration: Jackie Morris

TERRORISM is just one of the weapons available in the arsenal of conflict. But the word has always been shrouded in discomforting ambiguity. It connotes both something evil and immoral as well as a feeling of uncontrollable, earthshaking fear. In its basic sense, terrorism is the management, or politics, of scare-mongering. Its logic is fairly simple. It aims to create obedience (or disobedience) by profoundly altering the political frame of reference and circumstances of human behaviour through acute fear and uncertainty.

Terrorism has been used by movements of the right, left and centre. It has been employed by nationalists, anarchists, authoritarians; by insurgents opposing a particular government and by governments opposing supposed threats to state security. But there is much more to terrorism than the use of scare tactics as a political technique.

The essence of terrorism is that it is always related to semantics and psychological warfare. It is a form of symbolic politics, a sticky label used to delegitimize and erode an opponents objectives, morals or credibility. When someone is called 'a terrorist', rational discourse can easily be interrupted and replaced by emotive name-calling. It is much easier to combat 'terrorists' than justify exploitation by a white minority in South Africa or the occupation of Palestinian lands or 'big stick' international aggression. Likewise, an act of terrorism like a bombing or torture is meant to convey a brutal and immoral symbolism.

Of course that doesn't imply that only terrorism is symbolic. To a large extent all politics is intended to provoke either mass arousal on one hand or quiescence on the other. Terrorism is unique because it is almost entirely in the realm of posturing and theatrics. Terrorist actions are 'staged'.

In this sense, doing the unthinkable, committing especially callous and immoral acts, is oriented to achieve maximum effect: 'more bang for the buck'. There is always an enormous discrepancy between the actual military damage resulting from a terrorist outrage and its wider psychological effects. In fact, most victims are non-combatants symbolically associated with an 'adversary out there'.

The number of terrorist casualties on a global scale averages a few hundred yearly - a tiny fraction of those killed by common crime, not to mention conventional warfare.

However, the political impact of a single terrorist act, for instance the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship, is far-reaching. The immediate target and the ultimate target are not the same. The victim is a means to reach a larger audience, whether a population or a government, through the multiplier effect of the media or the 'rumour mill'.

Insurgent terrorism, like Italy's Red Brigades or the Provisional IRA in Ireland, attempts to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of a regime through fear and uncertainty. Terrorism by governments can range from the assassination of dissidents (Benigno Aquino in the Philippines or Father Popieluszke in Poland) to the disappearances and torture so common throughout Latin America. In both cases the goal is to increase obedience by the larger population. Especially in the case of insurgent terrorism there is an unwitting but symbiotic relationship between terrorists and the media. A barbarous and dramatic deed, such as a hostage-taking, or a skyjacking, is ideal media fodder. So is the attempt at a rescue. They will both make the 6 o'clock news. The multiplier takes effect: acts - news - response - more news; a ripple with an ever-widening audience.

Although there may seem to be a fairly rational relationship between political ends and terrorist means, terrorist methods are rarely rational. Nor do they always succeed in their political purposes. The historical evidence is mixed. The use of terrorism in Israel, Algeria, Kenya or Cyprus was successfully combined with other forms of national struggle. State terrorism helped wipe out opponents in France during the French Revolution, in the USSR under Stalin and in Pol Pot's Kampuchea. However, terror also seems to precede the collapse of dictators like the Shah in Iran or Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.

Revolutionary terrorism appears even less successful. There is not a single instance where insurgents have been able to bring about social revolution through terror. Usually the effect is exactly the opposite - government repression increases.

Terrorism is inherently political. It is about power - the influence over the actions of individuals and groups within a given system of rules. However, by altering these rules through violent, disorienting behaviour, terrorists force their targets to operate within a radically altered environment This constitutes a more pervasive form of power, what some analysts call metapower - the ability to manipulate an outcome in the power game by altering the very language of politics.

In this context of semantics, terrorism is an attempt to use fear and violence to alter meaning. But there is another more elusive and more important aspect that also needs to be explored: the antiterrorist backlash.

Terrorism is more than a fact, it is also being turned into an ideological tool by the New Right Terrorism and counter-terrorism are broader, more appealing labels to substitute for the old Cold War slogans. (See Burying the 'Vietnam syndrome', p14). A network of antiterrorist think-tanks has brought about a form of ersatz 'anti-communism'. Propagandists like Claire Sterling, Robert Moss and Arnaud de Borchgrave have helped shape a view of a global terrorist conspiracy which portrays each and every one of us at bay. This simplistic formula not only justifies recent forays against Libya but also leaves the door open for future acts of aggression against Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua or whatever country is labelled 'terrorist'.

This perspective has become the norm in Washington. President Reagan emphasizes dark, satanic, evil forces behind all terrorism (and even domestic dissent and moral anarchy). These 'crazy states' which threaten the global order are ultimately linked to Moscow. 'Criminal elements', such as drug traffickers are also tied in to undermine the West's moral fibre. According to this analysis, the major internal allies to this conspiracy of evil forces are the West's very own liberal reformers, the 'leftwing' media, the critical intellectuals. Perhaps even those who dare to raise questions about the new 'antiterrorist' ideology.

While the primary targets of 'counter terrorism' are a global concoction of 'international terrorists' and 'misfits', the ultimate targets are liberals, peace activists, environmentalists and others at home. The very suggestion that those soft on terrorism are part of the problem, symbolically puts critics 'off side'.

This friend-or-foe approach is already explicit in the rhetoric of the New Right and of Mr Reagan himself. In this updated but more encompassing version of 1950s anti-communism, the logic of terrorism has come full circle. Once accepted as a thesis, the diagnosis of the terrorist disease is simple. The cause is the collapse of moral authority; and so the solution is the creation of an all-encompassing national security regime to restore authority at home and abroad.

True, terrorism and terrorist organizations do exist and they do pose a danger. But the whole world is not at bay. Nor is civilization in more danger from terrorism than from Third World poverty or nuclear arms. The greatest danger is not terrorism itself but the inability to recognize that there are as many causes of terrorism as there are political strains.

That is the main problem with the present Western line on counter-terrorism. The solutions proffered are all technical, meeting force with force - and they are far from neutral. They reflect an implicit ideological bias. The emphasis has been on both 'hard positions' (never give in, immediate retaliation) and 'hardware'. The technical is given pre-eminence over the political, the tactical over the strategic. Rambo-type action rather than creative thought have been paramount

Likewise, the general emphasis has been on containment rather than on prevention, which always carries with it the above-mentioned logic of escalation and the body-counts of tit-for-tat This pattern has already been established in the Middle East, while the American actions in Libya clearly imply a cycle of spiralling retaliation.

This self-fulfilling prophecy, in turn, legitimizes the moral enterprise of the anti-terrorist establishment, making terror truly systemic. Even from a purely technical viewpoint (and leaving aside the perilous effects on civil liberties) national-security packages generally encourage rather than deter terrorism. Only a serious effort to understand the causes of terrorism can provide enlightened ways of controlling and stopping it.

Jorge Nef teaches political science at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada

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If it's printed it seems true. But you might be having
the wool pulled over your eyes. Each month the NI invites
one author to justify their style of argument.

Editor: You equate insurgent terrorism with state terrorism. But are they really the same thing? Aren't you helping to make the definition of terrorism even less precise?

Nef: On the contrary, state terrorism and state-sponsored acts of violence are undoubtedly part of the same problem as insurgent terrorism, By excluding these, which quantitatively and qualitatively are the most important aspects of terrorism we are not only making the definition less precise, but also accepting the absurd and biased proposition that only insurgent terrorism threatens our lives and is morally unacceptable. In fact, by failing to address the complexity of the issue, we end up accepting an Orwellian-type half-truth.

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Editor: You introduce sociological jargon like 'metapower' into your argument. Don't you think this kind of language is off-putting for the average reader?

Nef: Far form obscuring our understanding, I feel that a concept such as metapower serves to add clarity and precision to the analysis. By adhering to a more conventional discourse we may end up losing the richness of reality or describing things inappropriately. The term is included to distinguish between the 'power' of those who win one or several rounds of a game using certain given rules and those who can alter the outcome by altering such rules. I think that terrorism changes the routine of political interaction by creating a profoundly altered political and psychological environment.

Editor: Name dropping might impress some people. But how can we believe your charges about right-wing propagandists without proof?

Nef: By now it should be clear that the anti-terrorism industry and the myriad think tanks related to it reflect a very slanted view of the world. They are involved in the production and propagation of an explicit ideology of national security. A simple look at their publications will make this point.

Editor: You make it sound like 'containment' is a waste of time. But we won't solve the terrorism threat overnight. What are we supposed to so in the mean time?

Nef: I am not saying that containment is a waste of time and that it should be abandoned. I am saying, however, that containment without a clear understanding of the problem and the existence of a clear preventative policy is of little use. Fire-fighting without fire prevention is almost a losing proposition. Most of the literature on terrorism tends to over-emphasize a standard containment package which I see as most dangerous to democratic liberties. It is a typical case of having a solution before asking probing questions about the problem to be solved.

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