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Terrorism Serves the State
(Image: JR / TO; Adapted: m01229)

Terrorism Serves the State

(Image: JR / TO; Adapted: m01229)

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The continual attention to terrorism serves to justify state power. Meanwhile, alternative approaches are marginalized. In the media, it is almost impossible to escape the unending stories about the threat from terrorism. Whether it is the threat from homegrown terrorists, the danger of a new terrorist movement such as Islamic State or the need to eradicate terrorist plots, there seems no let-up in the alarm.

For those who lived through the Cold War, there was a plausible danger: nuclear war, which could have killed hundreds of millions of people and laid waste to cities and the environment. After the end of the Cold War, this existential threat faded from public consciousness, and many people expected a “peace dividend,” namely a reorientation of spending from military spending to spending for human needs. But there was little dividend, as most governments maintained military budgets while they looked for a new rationale.

Terrorism provides an ideal pretext for maintaining a massive security apparatus spying on citizens and allied governments as well as enemies. Terrorism, unlike nuclear arsenals, provides no serious threat to the survival of either populations or governments. Terrorism can be said to be a government-generated moral panic, with the threat hyped beyond its objective seriousness.

The biggest dangers to human life from weapons are from governments themselves. One need only think of genocides in Guatemala, Rwanda and ex-Yugoslavia, the pre-2003 blockade of Iraq leading to a million deaths, not to mention millions killed in central African wars, while the western media drums up fear about shoe-bombers on civilian aircraft and airport announcements endlessly repeat warnings about unaccompanied baggage.

The discourse on terrorism always focuses on threats from the other, usually small non-state groups or perhaps so-called rogue states such as Iran. When Western governments export weapons to repressive governments, when they remain quiet about mass killings and when they execute enemies outside the law in drone attacks, these arguably are forms of terror. Indeed, researchers call them state terrorism. But this concept is absent from the government – and mainstream media – lexicon.

Meanwhile, those who are dubbed terrorists and who may call themselves freedom fighters, are caught in a counterproductive dance with governments. Violent attacks, especially ones that generate a media spectacle, predictably backfire and provide a pretext for ever more state violence.


It is all very well to explain the problems with standard rhetoric about terrorism and with heavy-handed state responses. But what is the alternative? Actually, there are some important possibilities that are almost never mentioned in conventional commentary.

Nonviolent action – including boycotts, strikes, sit-ins and a host of other methods – is widely used by social movements around the world to challenge repression, exploitation, corruption and abuses of power. Research shows that for challenging repressive governments, nonviolent movements are much more effective than armed movements. More people are willing to join struggles when they are nonviolent. By removing any physical threat to opponents, nonviolent movements are more likely to weaken the loyalties of security forces.

In many cases, nonviolent movements are active and pursuing the same goals as armed movements. Yet in numerous places, for example Colombia, Syria and Palestine, most media attention is on the armed struggle: Nonviolent movements are virtually invisible. This suggests that if proper credit and attention were given to nonviolent approaches, the lure of terrorist groups would decline.

A key justification for so-called intelligence services – government spying operations – is to detect potential terrorist threats. “Intelligence” is normally seen as something that must be done by governments, but there is an alternative: collection of information from public sources, in what can be called “publicly shared intelligence.” Given the extensive awareness contained in populations around the world, an open-source, shared process of putting together information has great promise, analogous to the superiority of open-source software over proprietary forms.

There is a precedent for publicly shared intelligence: the Shipping Research Bureau, which collected information about ocean-based trade with South Africa when its apartheid regime was being boycotted. The bureau issued reports, and because its findings were open, regularly received corrective updated information (often from leakers) and thus became more accurate than the usual secret government intelligence agencies.

Another important means of undermining terrorism is to promote social justice, thereby reducing or removing grounds for complaint. Many countries in the world continue with policies and practices that perpetuate torture, exploitation, poverty, inequality and discrimination. In many cases, those who use violence against governments have legitimate grievances. A repressive response simply adds to these grievances. In this context, the global justice movement is one of the most effective antidotes to the terrorist impulse.

The Role of the Media

These sorts of alternatives are seldom presented in the mass media. Instead, media actually aid terrorists by providing the publicity essential to their methods. Terrorism has usefully been conceived as “communication activated and amplified by violence.” In essence, non-state terrorists use attacks on civilians as a means of attracting media attention, with the message that their concerns are significant. If media downplayed or ignored terrorist attacks, this would remove the lifeblood from terrorist acts.

Governments have long put pressure on media organizations not to report certain matters, for example, during wartime and matters of state security. However, governments seem quite happy for media to give unending attention to non-state terrorism and indeed encourage this fixation on a threat that justifies elaborate government security systems.

For those who seek an alternative, one option is peace journalism, in which much more attention is given to context, people’s perspectives and nonviolent alternatives. Although the mass media are likely to continue their emphasis on violence, with terrorism as a favorite topic, there is potential in social media to move in alternative directions.

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