Terrorism is notoriously resistant to strict definition, and the most obvious reason for this is generally understood. Unlike (for instance) guerrilla warfare, ‘terrorism’ is not merely a tactic, but an intrinsically abominated tactic. Whatever the technical usage of the word, it adheres to the register of propaganda, as a partisan denunciation. It is what the other side does.
This partisan skew is reinforced by technical considerations. Even more than guerrilla warfare, terrorism is a tactic suited to relatively disorganized non-state actors. When even guerrilla warfare is impractical, terrorism is the mode of violent ‘resistance’ that remains. In the sentimental language of the Left, it is the warfare of the weak.
If these factors are recognized, a realistic definition of terrorism can be constructed that coldly acknowledges both aspects of its positioning, as an ideologically motivated atrocity without state legitimation. Terrorism is violent partisan criminality. It is aggressive violation of the law in the service of a political cause.
In a post written prior to the identification of the Boston Marathon bombers, Richard Fernandez makes a point that is far from original, but all the more important for being clearly true, and widely accepted as being true:
The ascription of guilt in public attacks has become highly politicized. Each ideological side is rooting for its own set of villains to be identified as guilty. The Left desperately want the perpetrators to come [from] the Tea Party, White Supremacist Groups or at least Christians while the conservatives want the perps to be Muslims or drug addled lions of the Left.
Acts of terror taint a cause, its supporters, and its demographic base with violent partisan criminality. Who benefits? In the case of American domestic terrorism, at least, the answer is almost insultingly obvious. Those identified with the target of terror are strengthened by it, those pre-positioned as enemies of the terrorists even more so. After the atrocity occurs, the cry immediately arises: please let it not be ours.
This is distinctly odd. An act that is inherently political has a valency that directly and explicitly contradicts its superficial partisan motivation. Terrorism is not only something the other side does, it is something that — when reptilian partisan considerations are all that count — one wants the other side to do. How utterly delightful (if unavowable) to be blessed with spectacular public confirmation that one’s enemies are violent partisan criminals.
An inevitable consequence of this oddity is the proliferation of conspiracy theories. If the guiding question is cui bono?, the inescapable implication is that the target — ultimately, the State — is the only agent with a rational interest in terror taking place. ‘False flags’ make much more sense than raw terror ever could. This way lies madness, and perhaps an ineluctable mass insanity.
The alternative to conspiracy theory can only be common sense, but it finds itself surprisingly stressed. Is terror rationally explicable at all? Are its proponents simply deranged? Or do they perceive subtle advantage in sheer escalation — feeding their enemies, as a way to feed the war? With the world becoming ever more Black Swan-compatible, this is a story that has scarcely begun.
ADDED: Driven to kill by brutalist architecture.
ADDED: ‘George Washington’ on False Flag Terror.