Saturday, November 21, 2015

An Essay in Several Parts: On America, Refugees, Terrorism, and Totalitarianism with Introductory Vignettes: Part One

This is an essay in several parts.  Each part will have a brief introduction - a framing device, I suppose, in which I use an incident in American history, and the words of an American political thinker, to set up the episode.  The essay is about several things which, at this moment in history, need to be addressed collectively.  I hope to give its readers something to think about and, of course, a means to deal with a complex set of issues in a way that is humane, rational, just, empathetic, realistic, and moral.

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General Marion -  from James Dabney McCabe's  (1876)
The Centennial Book of American Biography as provided by Wikimedia

To begin with I'd like to talk about the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion.  Marion was an irregular in the American Revolution, using small, carefully planned raids to sap resources and men from the British army and loyalists, including freed slaves who supported the British in exchange for their emancipation.  Marion targeted infrastructure and officers, aiming to sow chaos, undermine supply lines, and generate fear among collaborators and potential collaborators that would remove local knowledge, insofar as possible, from the hands of the British.  His methods were well tested - he had learned many of them during the wars between the Cherokee people and the people of South Carolina years earlier, wars in which the South Carolina irregulars learned to fight in ways radically different than those used in Europe at the time - including using strategies of wholesale destruction of both villages and food caches that the Cherokee relied upon, rather than outright confrontation.  In both cases Marion's efforts were effective.  

Now, when I was a kid I remember being taught by television and history teachers that the British were just rubes in the Revolution - their soldiers stood in straight lines and wore brightly colored garments and avoided targeting enemy officers.  The Americans, far more sly and clever, engaged in strategies whenever possible that violated the "gentlemanly" rules of war and that is why we won.  But I'm older now, and better read, and a helluva' lot more reflective and I have to ask myself a few questions.  First, is the total no holds barred, irregular approach to warfare really better than genteel, formalized war?  I ask not in terms of its strategic utility (though it did take us a helluva' long time to beat those redcoats. . . ) but in terms of ethics and long-term implications for societies dealing with wars.  Second, why didn't the British use asymmetric warfare themselves?  They were acquainted with it - hell, many of the British were simply loyalist Americans, and many of those had fought in the same conflicts as the pro-revolution Americans, not to mention irregular wars in Scotland, Ireland, and so forth.  Sure - the linear march had some utility - discipline to victory and all that - but isn't it possible that the British officers refused to use every strategy and tactic at their disposal not because they were ignorant, but because it was morally unwise and/or because it would only generate ill will which would complicate relations between the Britons and the Americans no matter the outcome of the war?  

Honestly, I have complex feelings about it - I can just as easily imagine myself an outraged Loyalist as I can a snickering (if mosquito-riddled), swamp-abiding Yankee.  No matter, I suppose - but still, a good place to start our minds when addressing the first of part of this essay.

I. What is terrorism? 

The simple truth is that terrorism is difficult to define both clearly and elegantly.  Nonetheless, I will try. 

First, terrorism is a form of violence.  In saying this I mean to say that all terrorism involves either the use of force or the threat of force, understanding that force is the destruction, removal, or injury of one’s life, liberty, or property. 

Second, terrorism is a political act.  Terrorism is in every case a means to an ends, an attempt to bring the behavior and/or thinking of others into accord with one’s own, generally with the intent of taking, bestowing, and otherwise allocating honor, wealth, or power.  This also has another implication, at least to my mind – terrorism is a collective activity, carried out by groups for groups.  The lone wolf terrorist, as they are sometimes called, is no terrorist – they are simply criminals. 

Third, terrorism is a criminal act.  By criminal I mean to say that it is an act carried out in conscious violation of the orthodox legal order of a political system – at present this can mean, ultimately, two things.  First, a terrorist act can be criminal in that it violates the law of a particular state.  Secondly, a terrorist act can be criminal in that it violates the law of the international political order – as such terrorism may be state-sponsored, though this need not necessarily be the case.

Fourth, terrorism is a response to power asymmetries – when one actor, the terrorizing party, chooses a strategy of terrorism it is always in response to the fact that the terrorizing party is exponentially weaker than their opposition.  As a product war, particularly war that would be regarded as legal within in the modern international framework as defined by the Geneva Conventions and theirProtocols, is a non-viable option. 

This leads into terrorism’s fifth element – it is an emotional and propagandistic activity.  Terrorists understand human rationality as malleable and less definitively formed than we usually imagine it.  Typically rationality is understood as having only two essential elements.  First, humans rank and order their preferences, roughly and imperfectly granted, developing a sort of tally of things they would like to achieve or get and things they desire to avoid.  They then analyze these ends, focusing in particular on those things which they particularly wish for or to avoid, at least initially, by considering the costs, benefits, and risks associated with particular strategies they might employ in the pursuit of these ends.  This allows them to discard certain ends as non-viable and to choose the strategies most likely to result in the maximization of benefits and minimizations of costs and risks.   The problem is that this is inadequate – humans are not mere computers.  For instance, often we employ short-hands, psychological shortcuts intended to allow us to solve problems that apparently require little thought quickly – this means of course that, in fact, we’re not engaging problems rationally but habitually in such moments.  Furthermore, our interpretation of the apparent value of an end, as well as the costs, benefits, and risks associated with pursuing that end, may be altered by emotion.  Machiavelli wrote generally about this, describing how love, fear and hate radically alter the probability of different people pursuing particular ends by particular means.  Terrorism exploits this truth – it attempts to generate fear in particular, targeted ways that cause enemies to react predictably and self-injuriously.

This is important.  Terrorism is almost never used when the violence itself could constitute an existential threat to the political institutions it is aimed against – however it may be used to cause those self-same polities to succumb to self-destructive behaviors.  Put simply, a mosquito cannot kill an elephant – but if a mosquito bites an elephant and the elephant, in a panic, runs off a cliff, the mosquito achieves the same outcome, though the elephant itself was its own executioner. 

Sixth, terrorism is not easy to distinguish from guerrilla warfare in every case.  Both are asymmetric forms of violence.  It is probably best to understand political violence as existing on a continuum with traditional formal warfare at one end, terrorism on the other, and guerrilla warfare laying somewhere in between.  Alternatively, it is arguably that the difference is largely one of perspective – as the old saying goes, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. 

Continued in Part II - available here