“Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory”
This is a quote from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, 1991. Bill, the story’s protagonist, is a greying writer that struggles to find meaning in his work. Eventually, he stumbles into the centre of a Lebanese terrorist group’s plans. Throughout his encounters, he expresses his frustration in creating meaningful work, bemoaning the nature of the modern media landscape. In this environment “reduced to blur and glut”, a terrorist group associate declares, “terror is the only meaningful act.”
I will not spoil the rest of the book, but this led me to wonder: Is terrorism art? What is the nature of terrorism? How do we understand it as a phenomenon? I will embark on an exploration of multiple conceptions of terrorism — as art, legitimation, propaganda, symbolic warfare, social bonding — and their implications for fighting terror.
Terrorism as Art
I must preface that I do not agree with the proposition that terrorism is art. A ludicrous position, the suggestion that terrorism is art is not entirely new. After the World Trade Centre had crumbled to the ground in the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks, it received comments from artists dubbing it “art”. The “greatest work of art ever”, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s comments were greeted with widespread outrage. British artist Damien Hirst had also described the attacks as a “kind of artwork” which had forever changed “our visual language”, to a mourning and furious American public.
Edgy and brash as these comments are, the point they were making, in my opinion, is worth deliberating. In a reality dominated by images, we find ourselves not being able to look away from ‘spectacular’ events. It is the can’t-look-away-from-dumpster-fire syndrome. It is the introductory howl of “worldstar” in videos of public violence. It is the persistence of tabloid media and our frankly perverted fixation on the weird and disturbing things celebrities and strangers do. The world is a theatre, and we can’t help but stare.
The fact that there are countless television programmes, documentaries, features, podcasts, and books dramatising such attacks just shows us how deeply these ‘spectacles’ cut into our brains. Terrorism exploits this collective neurosis by creating a violent show, grabbing our heads, and forcing us to look.
Terrorism as Propaganda
Scholar Edward Herman most clearly described terrorism as a phenomenon that combines violence and propaganda, which modifies behaviour respectively through coercion and persuasion. The audience is central to terrorism as different messages are relayed. Terrorism scholar Ronald Crelinsten had surmised as such: If we take the terrorist’s enemy as the audience, the message is an assertion of power; for the enemy’s supporters, the message of power would lead to demoralisation; for the terrorists’ sympathisers, it is one of pride; for the terrorists’ prospective recruits, it is one of exhilaration.
This is the propaganda of the deed.
Terrorism as Symbolic Warfare
Jean Baudrillard presents a cutting analysis of these phenomena where he had stated that acts of terrorism like the September 11 World Trade Centre attacks are the “purest form of spectacle” in which terrorists “have succeeded in turning their deaths into an absolute weapon against a system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death” to advance their goals.
Baudrillard sees such attacks as responses to American hegemonic globalisation. That is, these attacks are a rebellion against a homogenising world culture rapidly proliferating the globe and threatening the way of life in lands previously untouched. What better building to represent the slithering forces of globalisation than the World Trade Centre, towering proudly over the de facto skyline of global finance? This symbol of power presented the perfect antithesis in Al-Qaeda’s vendetta against Western forces of globalisation, and so it was confronted head-on.
Terrorism as Legitimation
German sociologist Max Weber defined “state”-ness as a monopoly on violence. In this regard, terrorist groups legitimise themselves through violence by showing their prospective believers and supporters that they themselves can seize this monopoly and claim power. Throwing the sovereign into a state of panic and paranoia, their supporters look on in awe. If they can do it, I can do it too!
Terrorism as a legitimation strategy has worked wonderfully. When the United States (US) went blind with rage after the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks, the Bush Administration announced a war on terror, pledging to wipe out terrorist group “combatants”. Unwittingly, in labelling them as such, they elevated their status and thus legitimised Al-Qaeda. The legitimation comes by lifting criminals in international law to that of combatants and thus on equal footing. In pursuing this “unknown unknown”, as per Bush Administration Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, legal scholar Mary Ellen O’Connell describes this state of affairs as one in which they could then challenge the state.
Terrorism as Social Belonging
Looking at the psychology of terrorist attacks, terrorism scholar Max Abrahms points out that these groups have goals that are constantly moving. He is led to the conclusion that such acts are for themselves and are carried out not with a concrete political goal in mind per se. Instead, he sees such phenomena as being carried out because the members are socially alienated from society and thus commit terrorism to feel belonging — no matter how violent or irrational it may seem.
Bolstering this, he makes the point that if we look at groups where there are more suicide bombings, we find that the principal-agent chain is not as strong as compared to other groups with stronger and older leadership. The principal-agent problem is a classic model in political science and management circles in which the leader (or principal) delegates a task to a worker (or agent) and because of a mismatch in goals, the agent does not execute the task specifically as the principal had asked.
He theorises that as leadership is weak or non-existent, the underlings or newer leaders have more to prove and hence resort to more “spectacular” forms of violence against civilians.
These analyses place the individual terrorist at the centre of scrutiny, deconstructing the social incentive structures that surround them. By looking at the social conditions, we gain an important insight: terrorism is an act of socialisation. As multiple scholars had pointed out, the Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA), Irish Republican Army, Italian Communist Party and Red Brigades, the German Red Army Faction, and the Malayan Communist Party had members that had joined these violent groups to build social relations. For example, for Turkish terrorist members that had been interviewed, out of 1,100 members, people were 10 times more likely to say that the reason for joining the organisation was “because their friends were members” rather than for ideological reasons.
What is terrorism, and what is to be done about it?
Understanding a problem illuminates a path out of it. For me, asking whether terrorism can truly be considered art is a worthwhile question to ask in our fight against it. Ruminating on terrorism in non-scholarly terms allows us a different perspective than simply reading academic literature, which I would sometimes liken to reading about someone describing how paint dries.
That being said, in unpacking the suggestion of terrorism as art and deconstructing terrorism as a technology of warfare of propaganda, we may understand it as media. With this understanding, terrorism reveals itself as something we are so tantalisingly addicted to consuming. An effective counterstrategy would be to produce effective counter-terror messaging that displaces extremist violence in the proverbial marketplace of ideas.
On the other hand, analysing terrorism as a legitimation strategy and that of social bonding allows us to see the structural forces that shape such motivations. As Abrahms and economist Tyler Cowen pointed out, in the absence of economic incentives, the social and psychological benefits are crucial.
In the age of information, a force-focused “war on terror” is not enough. We must fight on the terrain not of just firepower, but also that of hearts and minds.