(Image available at: https://sites.google.com/a/apps.rdale.org/spanish-terrorism/political-cartoon)
It was after September 11 that the concept of terrorism dominated, prior to that the term had first been used in the ‘Reign of terror’, 1793. We can best understand the link between political theory and violence by going back to the traditions, and how they viewed violence. Hobbes and Weber suggested that force needs to be used to dominate, they see violence as a natural essence to power. Similarly, Marx argued that force should be used to liberate us from the exploitations of the state. However, Liberal thinkers, like Locke, argued that force cannot be in the realm of politics (Heywood, 2013). Liberalism sees violence as marginalised, we can come to agreements by not resorting to violence. Hannah Arendt (1965, p.19) suggested that politics and violence are separate and therefore we cannot think of them in the same category. Even though it can be justified in some cases, commonly where politics finishes, violence begins.
A tremendous amount of money is being spent by countries to countering terrorism. According to the Congressional Research Service report, since September 11 2001, the United States (US) has spent 1.6 trillion dollars on security forces, military operations, weapon maintenance and more. However, when we try to define terrorism, the precise definition of terrorism raises questions and controversies (Jackson and Sorensen, 2013). There is no one definition, it is always amended to adapt and cover what happens at a given time. For example, the definition of terrorism from the US Department of State prior to 2001 used had to be altered after September 11, because according to the definition it would not have been classified as terrorism, part of the definition was “politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant”. The definition was then altered to add non-state actors and (not just committing but also) threats (Gupta, 2008). The category for defining terrorism has become enormous, all are trying to find a definition that makes sense, and classifies all acts.
Lisa Stampnitzky in her book Disciplining Terrorism (2013) aims to understand why political violence became terrorism, and why was it this particular concept that dominated. One of her arguments is that terrorism is socially constructed, this is more than evident in society, until 2008 Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist in the US books, because he was classed as a ‘non-state actor’. Becker (1963, p.9) argues that inevitably groups with power will find ways of politically labelling groups without power, in ways that put them outside the normative structure. Fundamentally meaning finding ways for those people (e.g. criminals) that you do not like to dehumanise them, because they behave in ways we would not find ourselves behaving. The labelling masks the complexities of what people are doing. When we look at ISIS they are causing violence on themselves, violence on people from their country and outside it. This is a whole range of type of violence, all of which ends up in the category of terrorism, we are not categorising and looking at the act of violence, but rather labelling the group. It is not to be misinterpreted, my argument is not that we should morally justify these horrifying acts but to understand them, what are the ideological processes.
In the words of Gandhi, “eye for an eye will make everyone blind”, when people commit terrible things we dismiss them, we don’t try to understand why, because this is a difficult thing to acknowledge. This is an issues that needs to be dealt with globally, starting with governments and ourselves: if we are to reconcile and become a peaceful future, we must understand the meaning and the context in which the violence takes place, but when we label acts with terrorism we destroy that context.
By Sandra Xheleshi
Arendt, H. (1965) On Revolution. London: Viking Press.
Becker H.S. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press.
Belasco, A. (2014) The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, Congressional Research Service. Available at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf.
Heywood, A. (2013) Politics, 4th ed. Hampshire: Palgrave.
Jackson, R.J., and Sorensen, G. (2010) Introduction to International Relations: Theories and Approaches, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gupta, D.K. (2008) Understanding Terrorism and Political Violence. Abingdon: Routledge.
Stampnitzky, L. (2013) Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.