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Essay: Can states be terrorists?

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It was Trotsky who famously proclaimed that “Every state is founded on force”, (Trotsky and Weber, 1921) and if we accept Trotsky’s stance, then would it be acceptable for us to intertwine the concept of states along with terrorism, after all, if every state is built on force; then it, for better or worse, is a norm that we must accept; especially as actors who operate within the system of statehood. If we accept the notion that states are terrorists, then would it not be wise for us to then question the notion of states all together; after-all, if we combine the amount of people killed in a state’s quest to obtain territory and sovereignty, then the death toll would be unequivocally larger than what contemporary terrorists have achieved. This in-turn, would make it difficult for us to justify the current discourse surrounding statehood. My argument for why states should not be considered terrorists will be split into two core arguments; the first being the consequences for considering states as terrorists within the broader terrorist literature. The second part of this essay will focus on why it is problematic to associate terrorism with the state, in the 21st century where the term terrorism has been successfully claimed by non-state actors who use terrorism as a tool for anti-state activities. I will argue that if we then put states within the same sphere as non-state actors, we risk overloading the term terrorism, making research broad and negligible. As a result; the literature will be disregarded by actors; state and non-state, as something that is prescriptive and out of touch. For the purpose of this essay, when I discuss state terror, I will be discussing the terrorism that is conducted by the west, unless it specifically states otherwise.

For us to marry the terms state and terrorism; one must first explore the nature of the state. The introduction of the term ‘state’ in the English language was by French writers like Francois De La Noue in the 15th Century. (Skinner, 2008) However, the notion of statehood was being discussed centuries before this; with one of the first derivatives being discussed by Aristotle in Politics. “Every state is as we see a sort of partnership. The family and every partnership is formed with a view to some good.” (Aristotle and Rackham, 1959: 2)

If we very quickly look at one of the more widely known definitions of terrorism from the English dictionary, leaving aside the issues of defining terrorism for the moment; we see that terrorism is “the unlawful use or threat of violence especially against the state or the public as a politically motivated means of attack or coercion.” (Merriam-Webster, 2017) It quickly becomes evident that these two terms are somewhat opposites. Whilst the state is associated with order and a common good, terrorism is associated with lawlessness and violence. If we move further into the concept of the state, we find that we increasingly see more distinct associations with government and order.

The most useful description of the state is from Max Weber, where he sets out the parameters for what it means to be a successful state; he argues that a state is a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” (Weber, 2008: 5) This definition is vital to why a state should not be considered terrorist. Within the international community; there is a belief that there are some states can be considered fragile or failed, meaning that the government at the time is not recognised, or is in direct conflict with other internal actors in a dispute over land, resources and power. One of the indicators that The Fragile Peace Index uses to measure a state’s competency to run a state effectively is their monopoly over the use of force against violent uprisings, vigilantes, or other groups. These failed states are not only a threat to their own civilian population; but to their neighbouring states, and can even threaten to destabilise the entire region’s security and economy. (Iqbal and Starr, 2008) If we then choose to disregard a state’s monopoly over violence, we are essentially renouncing a significant part of what it means to be a state. Monopoly over violence is vital for the functioning of the state; not only to make sure that social issues do not get out of hand, but also to make sure that their security is not threatened by others who wish to threaten it.

That is a key difference between state and terrorism, and why they can never be used synonymously, if we entertain the notion that they can be one and the same; then we are essentially taking away the legitimacy that the state has, leaving it a redundant concept, something that is impossible to do. This in the long run poses a problem with terrorist literature that explores state terror. The object of any type of academic study is to “build a foundation for knowledge that makes possible … application that provides (a) wider benefit.” (Johnson, 2012) If we accept Trotsky’s earlier notion of states being founded on force; an idea that is widely accepted; then is there any advantages of discussing whether states are terrorists and if so; in what capacity. Secondly, if we still wish to pursue states as terrorists; to make a difference there must be some form of punishment to deter states from their terrorist behaviour. However, there is no entity that can currently do this. Since states operate in a system of anarchy; there is essentially no accountability for the state. J.L Brierly argues that “international law is nothing but ‘external public law’, binding the state only because, and only so long as, it consents to be bound.” (Brierly, 2012 :36) This is vital to the understanding of state terrorism and the limitations to the literature.

Contras in Nicaragua, Israeli operations in the West Bank, and the violence that South American civilians saw in the 20th century all have one thing in common; that is western interests and foreign policy decisions. The west and state terrorism have been discussed together for decades by those who study state terror. It is argued that the increased terrorist activity in the 20th and the 21st century is due to these western policies being enacted. Some arguments have been to say that the terrorist attacks taking place in the west are a direct result of the ‘primary terrorism’ that is being conducting by the United States and her allies. (Herman and O’Sullivan, 1991) For example, the attacks of September 11th were in some way related to American intervention in Afghanistan in the 1970s when the US indirectly armed right-wing Islamist militants to fight off Soviet forces. The retaliation, usually in non-state form, is then considered to be used as further propaganda for western interests; and is used by the United States and her allies to conduct their own state terrorism; most recently being in the form of the war on terror. (Chomsky, 2011) However, this argument is problematic for a few reasons. Although western states do exert their interests and policies abroad; it is not for the goal to create terror; in this regard, it is missing the intention. Intention is something that is seen to be vital when deconstructing terrorism. (Mcmahan, 2009)

What is also important to note is that Chomsky and Herman also ignore one of the key fundamentals of the state (Whether it be western or otherwise), and that is that the state is in a constant struggle to protect itself and is in a continuous state of survival. (Cozette, 2008) State terrorist scholars have time and time again disregarded the notion of what it means to be a state and its right to exercise power and force to survive. This right comes from the need for resources to assure its continuity, both as a legitimate governing force for its own people; and to protect its self-interests on the international stage. This demonization of the state in this regard is absurd; as the state does not only operate for its own material protection; but also of the protection of its own civilians. Now the counter argument by somebody like Herman would be that the activities of states like the US directly put their own civilians at risk; both abroad and at home. (Herman, 1982) However, if we take the example of the US specifically; then we see that there is a very strong support for American hegemony internally. For instance, if we consideration the arguments of American neoconservatives; then we see that intervention as something that is vital to the continuation of America and its hegemonic role in the world. Mead, in his book Special Providence argues that neocons; or hard wilsonians, are strong believers in promoting America’s brand of democracy abroad as a way of promoting American interests and pursuing its goals. This is something that neocons believe should be done with a certain vigour and intensity. (Mead, 2013) Over the years this has seen various internationalist policies being pursued by various administrations; more notably the Reagan administration through the Reagan doctrine. (Scott, 1996) Administrations have also felt the wrath of hard wilsonians when they have felt that the administrations of the time were not doing enough to ensure the security and promote American values; this was seen during Bush Jr’s presidency when neocons criticised the administration for not being as supportive for the governments invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Boot, 2004) This is one of many examples of how states and their various internal actors discuss the necessity to exert international power. There is an understanding that these types of beliefs are problematic, however, not for the implications that state terror scholars argue. This does not back up the claim of state terror; but backs up the claim of realists who argue that a state performs acts to ensure its own safety and interests.

One of the main issues with associating the state with terror is that it does not make any sense conceptually. The 20th century saw the rise of terrorist groups like the IRA and the Red Army Faction. After this militant Islamist groups became infamous for conducting some of the deadliest terrorist attacks both within the middle east and on foreign soil; including the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Centre. (Weinburg, 2008) Of course the most infamous of these attacks is still considered to be the attacks that occurred on September 11th. It was clear; terrorism; whatever it may have meant before; was now a weapon that is only used by non-state actors to wreak havoc on the free world. This claim was not something that was only supported by governments of the world; it was also something that was supported by the media, the civilian population; and these narratives were pursued by terrorist scholars through the various schools of disciplines; including psychology, sociology, and of course within political sciences. Although there continues to be a debate surrounding how to deal with the issue of international terrorism; one thing is clear when discussing terrorism within the public sphere; terrorism is an act that is carried out by those who are not associated with a state; and are groups that are detached from society. This poses another problem for state terrorism. Even if we do accept that states can be terrorists, we are overcome with another issue; and that is how do we then promote state terror literature to a world that is already accustomed to the belief that non-state actors are the only ones who conduct and participate in the activity of terrorism. Even if there becomes a consensus somehow that states are terrorists within the academic world, and terrorism literature then includes comprehensive research on state terror; there must still be a buy in from the variety of actors that the literature is meant for. After all; it is the government; and not academic departments that are in charge with the discourse surrounding terrorism; and what type of impact the policies have in the world. (Wight, 2012)

Although this essay is not going to attempt to provide one strict definition of terrorism it is important to conceptualise terrorism. The importance of defining terrorism is vital to terrorist literature, not only is a definition of terrorism useful for the analysis surrounding specific debates; definitions of terrorism are also used as tools by different actors within policy making, public support and even with propaganda material. (Sproat, 2008) However, it has increasingly become clear that terrorism is difficult to define because of its hypothetical nature based on different circumstances on the world stage; in-fact it is argued to be easier to recognise and label acts of terrorism, then to reach a consensus of what terrorism is. (Wight, 2012)

Deviating definitions are one of the reasons why terrorism literature is problematic, in that there is no one definition that can be provided to base recommendations around policies and so forth. Since there is no strong discourse on what the phenomenon of terrorism is; most terrorist literature is considered “narrative, condemnatory and prescriptive.” (Wright, 2012) In the context of labelling states as ‘terrorists’, this becomes even more problematic. Noam Chomsky offers two approaches to terrorist literature. The first one being the literal approach, and the second approach being propagandistic. The literal approach, Chomsky claims; is the best course of methodology when researching terrorism and is the only way to take terrorism studies ‘seriously’. The propagandistic approach uses the conceptualisation of terrorism as a ‘weapon’ that is there to support a system of power; usually the state. (Chomsky, 1991: 12) However, this analysis is problematic; firstly, Chomsky does not recognise the individual needs of specific actors. Even if we restrict this analogy to academics within the terrorist literature; we run in to a platform of differing opinions. Chomsky has ignored one core belief within terrorism studies; and that is that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” (Friedersdorf, 2012) So with this analysis there is nothing to stop an actor from labelling something an act of terrorism; when that simply is not the case. For example; one could easily assume that the black nationalist movement during apartheid South Africa in the mid to late 1900’s can be considered terrorist affiliated; even using the literal approach of Chomsky’s method to describe terrorism. This is because of the wide range of opinions that construed terrorism. This can be shown in many ways, for instance; the 16th and 17th century saw a large amount of slaves being transported via the triangular trade route; the buying and selling of slaves during time was considered a norm; in fact in order to buy a slave you would have had be within the middle/upper class of society. We know now that this was immoral and cruel; however, there were a set of standardised beliefs that society operated in at that time. The point is that all societies operate within a belief system; whether it may be right or wrong is a separate question. Although it might seem as though the usage of terrorism is mainly controlled by the state, it is impossible to claim full over the world terror. This then means that the state is not only one to disagree with it being considered a terrorist; but also an entire population who also disagrees with that belief as well.

Most literature on the definitions of terrorism start off by introducing us to the Régime de la terreur, which is widely considered to be the birth of terrorism within the English language. (Hoffman, 2006) Many scholars within Critical Terrorist Studies, have all in some way attempted to defend the notion of why states can be terrorists through this event. (Richard Jackson, 2008) (Michael Stohl, 2012) (Ruth Blakely, 2010) For example; Jackson argues that the genealogy of the term terrorism is deeply rooted in the state’s use of terror to intimidate and coerce their populations. (Jackson, 2010) In addition to this, authors such as Paul Wilkinson argue that the concept of state terrorism is a necessary tool to depict and explore anti-state terrorist groups. (Wilkinson, 1981) This statement, however, fails to acknowledge that the term has drastically transformed over the decades and as a result, CTS scholars seem to disregard anti-state terrorist groups aims and goals as separate from the states aggression,

Stohl, in his definition of terrorism encompasses all actors, including states as being able to commit terrorism. During the Cold War, the Reagan administration had come up with a way of deterring and fighting the Soviet Union without directly engaging in combat with the Soviets. The Reagan Doctrine insured that there was a steady influx of aid to countries; such as Afghanistan to overthrow the alien Soviet forces. In Kashmir, the disputed lands between Pakistan, India and to a lesser extent, China; Pakistan has been seen to be supporting insurgents that are in direct conflict with Indian forces. More recently; we have seen both Saudi Arabia and Iran engage in fierce proxy wars; across the region; most notably in Syria. These are all examples of some form of aid or help being given to supporting forces. They are also examples that are supported by Chomsky and Herman as examples of state terror; or a ‘terror network’ within their theoretical framework to support state terrorism. However, is this really the case. Especially the state’s in question are not directly responsible for the creation of violence; and are not themselves using their own apparatus; e.g. military, courts, police forces to conduct the terrorism. (Wight, 2012) Since this is the case; states cannot be considered terrorists; as they themselves have not enacted the terrorist attack; and to hold them accountable for these acts would be to scrutinise the entire state apparatus; even though it may not have anything to do with terrorist activities. This in turn, would delegitimise those who are conducting the investigations in to state terror; in this case; the supporters of the notion of state terrorism. (Wight, 2012)

The concept of state terrorism is problematic because of its theoretical ramifications and its real-world application. Terrorism on its own is problematic because of its impossibility to define and conceptualise and combining the two extremely diverse concepts does not make sense. That is not to say that the writings and information provided by Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, Michael Stohl and other scholars who support state terrorism should be ignored. In fact, they are some of the most influential pieces of work and are subscribed to by many outlets. In addition to this; there is a very important question that has emerged out of this, what can be done about the violence that is a result of policies and interests that states require to conduct their business.


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