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#820, 5 August 2002
‘Terrorism’ and Intellectual Responsibility Firdaus AhmedFreelance writer on security issues
The conceptual contestation over ‘terrorism’, as a term in the strategist’s glossary, has been furious. There is little argument over what constitutes terrorism, but it is widely accepted as being the use of violence for political ends, directed at civilians and non-combatants to influence this wider audience. The contested space is: firstly, over legitimacy of its use as a strategy (where it is the principal manner of attaining its political goals) or a tactic (one among multiple means of gaining its political objective) adopted in a wider asymmetric conflict; and, secondly, what spin it puts on violent incidents termed as terrorism by either side. While state authorities prefer to characterize all violence perpetrated by the armed opposition as ‘terrorism’, these armed parties in the conflict castigate any governmental retaliatory measures as ‘state terrorism’, either military or structural.
At stake in this battle is ‘legitimacy’. While the state attempts to deny acceptability to the armed group and its instrumental or gratuitous use of violence, the group likens state violence to terrorism, and thereby seeks to justify its own violence as a response. Moral and legal arguments are employed as weapons to influence the population in the disturbed area, the elite and citizenry in the affected state, and the international audience. While terrorism is rightly recognized as armed propaganda, it has a multifarious agenda, which is not restricted to ‘terrorist’ organizations alone.
In this war of words, with language being utilized as a weapon in the discourse, there is a danger of losing perspective. Only an intrepid analyst can retain a measure of detachment from the evocative language used to cloak intent and action by both sides and their supporters in these conflicts. Retaining a focus is the only defense for academic integrity, lest analysis be contaminated by propaganda and serve to disseminate it. While the political orientation of the analyst will understandably inform the output, unreserved acceptance of the self-serving position or the version of either side is indicative of either intellectual sloth, gullibility, political naiveté, fear, or, worse, motivated writing. Needless to add, there is plentiful evidence in the outpouring on ‘terrorism’ post 9/11. In democratic societies subject to terrorism as routinely as in ours, unquestioning faith is counter-productive.
Two points need greater reflection in this regard. One is that, while rightfully condemning ‘terrorism’, it would not do to throw the baby out with the bath water. While laudable ends cannot justify ‘terrorism’, the ends themselves are not rendered illegitimate by those seeking to further those ends by resorting to misdirected violence. Violence is not an unambiguously illegitimate means of conflict behavior. The current onslaught on ‘terrorism’ ought to be so focused as to direct this violence at legitimate (not necessarily military) targets. Comment also needs to be directed against terrorists violating this principle of discrimination in the choice of targets, means and methods of attack, as against the present preoccupation with characterizing violence itself as illegitimate. The uncontested hegemony of this narrative ends up privileging order over justice, and obfuscating the roots of this conflict by mistaking the symptoms for the causes.
Secondly, while violence perpetrated by terrorists has rightly been foregrounded, it must be supplemented by influencing the state to ‘clean up its act’. Counter-terrorist measures affect the people; hence they ought to be made citizen-friendly and discriminatory. Only then will the people themselves judge terrorist acts against the standards set by the state. Since perception management is also in the terrorist’s interests, the fallout will occur in mitigating a dehumanization of the conflict. Taking the initiative is the moral responsibility of the state. Goading it to do so is the responsibility of intellectuals in the security area, a responsibility that can only be discharged by deconstruction of the dominant narrative. Security analysts need to reopen the discourse to include these two issues to fulfill their social responsibility.

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