Law in Contemporary Society

Terrorism as the Strongest Form of Social Control

-- By SoYeonKim - 13 May 2012

Terrorism defies definition. Once we define terrorism, it reemerges in ever-changing and more violent forms. The contemporary definition is the use of force on civilians with the intention of leveraging fear of imminent death and intimidation for the furtherance of a religious, political, or social goal. The 9.11 terrorist attacks were meant to wage a holy war on the United States and John Brown’s attack was meant to bring about the end of slavery.

Not according to John Brown. He said he was trying to free slaves, and was prepared to use force if he was resisted. That doesn't fit your definition of "terrorism." So perhaps you're changing the facts to fit it in?

While terrorism is associated with evil, a lot depends on whose point of view is being defended and whose liberty it seeks to achieve. John Brown’s act of terrorism is often lauded for precipitating the civil war and bringing an end to slavery, a goal that is deemed just and worthy. On the other hand, the Sarin gas attack on the subways of Tokyo by Aum Shinrikyo to overthrow the Japanese government and install Shoko Asahara as the emperor of Japan is deemed a reprehensible act of violence for the purpose of achieving a goal that was both unjust and unworthy.

But isn't the solution to remove that question from the context? The charge to be preferred against Asahara Shoko is murder, and the issue is whether he is competent to be tried and sane enough to be held criminally responsible for killing people. "Terrorism" is mere rhetoric. In Brown's case, though the charge preferred by the Virginians was "treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia," for which the evidence was technically extremely weak, there are probably crimes for which he can be successfully and fairly prosecuted. What has "terrorism" to do with it?

Is Terrorism Effective?

The first question to ask is how we measure the success of a terrorist act. Is it by the number of people it kills or the policy changes it brings?

Why is this the first question? It seems really quite odd. How who measures the success of the act? The actor? The victims? A bystander?

If the goal of terrorism is retribution, its effectiveness is measured by the number of people it kills and it is always effective because the means are the ends. However, if the goal is to bring about policy changes, terrorism is not directly effective in and of itself. Terrorism rarely targets the perpetrators of whatever socio-political harms that terrorists seek to end. Instead, it targets civilians because they are symbols or corrupt beings that tie into a specific view of the world that terrorists possess. In this sense, terrorism is a ceremony.

Yes, or a performance. Symbolic activity, designed to communicate. So if you were going to judge "success," as with any other act of communication, you would want to establish (a) who is communicating, (b) to whom, (c) what message(s). Your only specific example of terrorism so far, however, you are not treating in this fashion. "Waging holy war" is one way of describing what some people were doing, I suppose, but that doesn't seem very analytically careful to me. I think you might want to consider the events of September 11, 2001 as communications, but in doing so you will have to put aside a great deal of pious nonsense on all sides; the American interpretation of those events is naturally only important if the primary communication was being made to Americans, which is most evidently not true. Once one thinks about the situation from outside the American perspective, and particularly if one thinks about it from the religious perspective of the people who were communicating (they are or were religious people, as many soldiers, commandos, assassins, terrorists, criminals—whatever one calls users of violence under relevant conditions—have always been religious people), some new features of the situation become visible.

It is the sacrifice of the manifestations of particular characteristics of society but is unlikely to engender immediate submission. Terrorism is also often not directly effective in the short run in the sense that there is no guarantee that such an act will either create the political change the terrorist is trying to achieve, or attain the desired response by the government or the public. In the short run, terrorism actually creates unity within as it pits us against them and we call for retribution, making it unlikely that the demands of terrorist groups are met.

The only but also the most potent way terrorism achieves its goals is by creating vulnerability. It incites fear and creates disunity in people regarding the ways to end terrorism. It breeds distrust of the government’s ability to counter terrorism and a need to take law into one’s own hands.

Maybe we concentrate too much on these aspects of the situation, which are byproduct communications in some situations, and central points of the exercise in others. In general, it can be said, the creation of a sense of vulnerability, etc., are relevant more often when the state is using rituals of exemplary violence against citizens. This is how occupations work, and other situations where a small number of well-armed and disciplined people are used to dominate a much larger society. Only by constant internalization of the threat of violence can large numbers of people be controlled by small forces, no matter how well-equipped.

Situations such as the ones you are now discussing, what we have called "terrorism" over the last two or three decades, these acts of ceremonial non-state violence, are usually communications with power, and to outsiders. The traumatizing of people surrounding the violence is not a primary objective. For small groups of outsiders, only able to mount sporadic attacks, the attitude of the masses who witness the violence is almost irrelevant. Mass media change that calculation to some extent, allowing secondary advantages to accrue. But, as the 9/11 attacks show once one drops the American idiosyncratic psychic distortions, the primary communications are still the traditional ones. The Pentagon attack communicated with power: a sequence beginning with Ramzi Youssef's shooting of intelligence service workers outside CIA headquarters, and then leading through the embassy bombings and the Cole. The two attacks on the WTC were communications to outsiders: showing that God is Great, infinitely greater than the American Empire.

The American experience since 2001 has been distinctive, because here the government in control used the ceremonial violence, not only to justify external war, as Putin did when Chechens committed ceremonial violence in Moscow, but also to dismantle protections for domestic civil liberties of all citizens. That required the government to increase fear and sense of vulnerability, to create an internalization of the threat. This behavior was the highest form of public crime, ranking with Augustus' immensely skilful destruction of the Roman Republic. You live in the aftermath of that putsch, and much of what you seeing going on in law school around you, including this essay, are exercises in trying not to acknowledge the nature of what happened.

It also brings media attention to the causes of the perpetrators of terrorism and while it invites fervent critics, it also attracts people to their cause. These effects of terrorism, when combined with other forms of social control such as the family, education, and law, create susceptibility to the goals of the terrorist groups that make the fruition of their objectives more likely.

Why is Terrorism Effective?

Terrorism is an effective form of social control solely because it destroys and replaces other forms of social control. The family is the cradle of life and love, and the values we learn from our families live on as the bedrock of life. Terrorism achieves its potency because it destroys families and disunites them along ideological lines.

Are you sure? This seems to me almost completely to abandon the recognition that you're describing a symbolic activity, whose actual human costs are always far smaller than the other effects. The 9/11 attacks together killed one-tenth as many people as are killed by gun violence every year in the US. They killed one twenty-fifth of the number of people killed every year by the cigarette industry in the US. They killed one hundredth of the number of civilian casualties we caused in Iraq, by our own official estimate, in mismeasured, inappropriate, unjustified response.

The family is unable to pass its wisdom if its members are in constant fear of their lives.

In order to be kept in constant fear of their lives, the family will have to experience more than an episode of terrorism. Forces of social control will have to be applied to them (by the state, by the church, by "the Party") to keep them in fear. Even people living in cities under wartime conditions do not experience the atomization you are hypothesizing. Even when there is in fact constant random violence, people make sense of their lives, conduct their marriages, raise their children. I've seen it, and if you've lived in a war zone, you've seen it too.

In addition, terrorism changes the values that families eventually succeed in inculcating. The focus of families shifts from indoctrinating the values of compassion, love, and respect for others to survival, fear, and endurance.

Really? Did this happen in Britain when IRA was bombing? Or in Beirut during the civil war? Or anywhere, in fact? State terror can do this, at the extreme, in DPRK, or Cambodia under Khmer Rouge. But not to everyone and not for long. You take human sociality too much for granted, and don't understand the extent of its robustness. Reading again about survival cannibalism might help.

Terrorism transforms families from being essential ethical and moral unit of society into a veritable squadron dedicated to the goal of perpetuating the family lineage. This effect on families may not aid in achieving the immediate goals of terrorist organizations but it does create a sense of weakness that makes people more dissatisfied with their government and more amenable to give in to the goals of the terrorist organizations in the long run.

Terrorism also destroys other weaker forms of social control. Education and law are beautiful creations of civilization because they are weak forms of social control. Laws exist because people break them and education exists to allow people to think outside the contours of the framework; but they are nonetheless important social constructions that shape people’s behavior and create some semblance of order. Terrorism destroys both.

Really? Can you name an example where sporadic ritual violence by outsiders has managed to destroy an educational system? What happened in the school at Beslan was among the most horrific examples of ceremonial violence in the last generation. But children all over Russia went to school the very next day. The Khmer Rouge intentionally and systematically slaughtered all educated Cambodians for years, and they almost managed to destroy Cambodian education for a decade. Once again, the scale on which you are claiming "terrorism" can operate is not credible. How do you think these ideas came to be in your mind?

People at the forefront of terrorist attacks are unable to receive education and schools are frequent targets of annihilation. The destruction of schools adversely affects literacy rates and diminishes the chances of escaping the cycle of terrorism.

Don't you think it will be hard to affect a national literacy rate by sporadic attacks on schools? Did you do any arithmetic on how many children one would have to kill in even a small country to change the national literacy rate? It's as though once this argument gets started, the very idea of editorial skepticism disappears.

Terrorism is also effective because it leads to a distrust of laws. Terrorism, especially state sponsored terrorism, can have the fašade of being legal because what is legal is arbitrarily determined by whoever is claiming to be the government. History shows that it is quite easy to legalize evil; after all, almost everything done under the Third Reich was “legal.” The destruction of law and education creates chaos and defenselessness that terrorist groups leverage and generates more willingness to cede to their demands.

What did this paragraph mean?


While an act of terrorism may not be directly effective in achieving the goals of the terrorist in the short run, it is effective in the long run by destroying forms of social control and creating susceptibility to terrorist objectives. Understanding the source of the potency of terrorism allows us to understand why people resort to terrorism despite the fact that the means are disproportionate to the ends and only marginally effective in the short run. While terrorism will most likely endure, understanding the mechanism of terrorism will allow us to find ways to strengthen forms of social controls like family, education, and the law to make them less susceptible to terrorism.

I think this conclusion reflects more the confusion than the analysis. I think they way forward is for you to give your own draft a critical read. Decide what's there that you can substantiate, for which you could bring evidence forward, and what reflects attitudes, habits, feelings, that you can use to understand the symbolic response to "terrorism" to which you have yourself been subjected. Then you have two sets of material from which to synthesize a new draft: you know what you want to say about terrorism as a social phenomenon, and you know with what unexamined premises and emotional reflexes your society has endowed you by virtue of the "war on terror" that has been going on since you were a child. Out of the two you will get something that will be very valuable to you, and to your readers.

I would like to keep revising my essay after getting feedback from you. Thank you for a great semester. -So Yeon

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