The Mechanics of Terror


PISAROV, a Russian revolutionary of the late 19th century, said that the most fanatical of all people are children and adolescents. Albert Camus comments that this dictum applies no less to nation states. If one accepts this premise then the current state of world affairs is dire since most leading players are, historically speaking, children. From the vantage point of history, a nation under three hundred years old is in its childhood. What then are we to make of states either established or merely projected during the last fifty years? The brutal fumblings of political Zionism, the Quixotic War on Terror, and violent theopolitical currents which demand a new caliphate or a theocratic state are examples of an immaturity that would be laughable if presented as satire. In the real world, unfortunately, such immaturity is producing impoverishment and suffering on an unprecedented scale. What else should one expect when the oldest adolescent bully on the block is a mere two hundred and fifty years old and just happens to be the only remaining superpower at large?

In his classic essay on rebellion and mankind’s justifications for murder and terror throughout the ages, Camus writes:

Nihilism, intimately involved with a frustrated religious movement, mus culminates in terrorism. In the universe of total negation, these young disciples try, with bombs, revolvers, and also with the courage with which they walk to die gallows, to escape from the contradiction and to create the values they lack. Until their time men died for what they knew, or for what they thought they knew . . .

– The Rebel

Such a statement would not be out of place in a contemporary treatise on the roots of modern “Islamic” terrorism. And yet at the time it was written, no such subcategory of terrorism existed. Terror was terror whatever the root cause attributed, because Camus’ argument shows that these alleged causes weren’t causes at all. The actual root cause is the real or imagined failure of a code of beliefs or set of social conditions producing a moral/ethical/philosophical vacuum which self-styled reformers and modern-day prophets feel compelled to redress. More often than not, schemes to regenerate a fallen humanity insist on first razing any and all preexisting structures to the ground. Advocates of such Year Zero scenarios and the builders of New World Orders say such wholesale destruction is necessary. History turns a more jaded eye to the process and calls it what it is: a scorched earth policy. History knows we can never fully disengage from our collective pasts, even as the latest academic fad trumpets the death of history.

By looking at the philosophical aspects of terrorism, however, we glimpse only the tip of the iceberg: the reductionisms and rationalizations for the behavior of extremely irrational beings. Some describe mankind as a species of thinking animal. If that is the case it should be noted that he is not a particularly efficient “thinking animal.” The present cul-de-sac reached by zealous Pharasitic terror networks on the one hand, and the state sponsored terrorism of national and imperialist agendas on the other, is fueled more often by mankind’s collective insecurity, and irrational dreams and phobias, than by reason.

Returning to the metaphoric adolescence of nations, it would be wise to keep in mind one of the hallmarks of adolescent development: rebellion for its own sake.

Adolescent rebellion serves two purposes. It allows the individual an opportunity to gauge his strength, however undeserving the target of rebellion may be. More importantly though, it is ultimately a demand for limitation. Children and adolescents often lash out at the world looking for places where the world hits back. In this way, one’s social, emotional and psychological limits are discovered. If no limits are found, the search continues and the rebellion covers more ground. Should no limitations be found we are presented with individuals unmoored to their surroundings, adrift in a universe void of meaning. Nature may abhor a vacuum. Mankind, as a thinking animal, is absolutely unhinged by it

With this in mind, witness the latest current events. The ferocity of abuse doled out to the Palestinians by Sharon’s black shirts, the plunder of Afghanistan and Iraq by NeoCons or the propensity to fly aircraft into civilian targets all smack of a spoiled child running unchecked through a china shop. Countries with a bit more history behind them are beginning to curl their lips in revulsion over such disorderly antics but no one seems motivated sufficiently to play the role of disciplinarian. We are fast becoming a world modeled not on The Wealth of Nations, Dos Kapital or scripture, but on Lord of the Flies.


Before further examination of generic definitions over the centuries, it would be wise to reflect on how recent events have so rattled our collective cage that we can no longer utter the word terrorism without a degree of self-conscious irony. The sense that we have moved into uncharted waters – akin to the post-atomic Zeitgeist and the wide-reaching moral, ethical and philosophical reassessments it produced – is undeniably perceived despite our inability to articulate iL Words inevitably fall short The nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the attacks on NY and DC on September 11th have left a deeper wound on our psyches than the wound that might have been left by a mere tallying up of human and fiscal losses. The losses, extensive as they were, serve to downplay the event by reducing it to simple mathematics.

It is the mushroom cloud and the inferno in Lower Manhattan added to our archetype library that keeps us awake at night.

Or as one New York Times commentator pointed out 9/11 is a date that will forever have a Before and After attached to it

When discussing the implications of Black Tuesday, we need to probe deeply into why it touches, frightens and fascinates us so. Or to steal a phrase from journalist Thomas Freidman, why it was such a brilliant piece of terrorism. In its original context Friedman was commenting on the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut It is nothing if not more concise in light of the attacks in New York and Washington.

What helps catapult the 9/11 attacks higher on our Bichter scale of horror is the fact that it occurred during peacetime. After all, the civilian casualties in places like Hiroshima or, say, Dresden, were presented as cruel necessities of war. We are led to believe that the destruction unleashed upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was all the more calculated and heinous because there was no war and therefore no enemy target to strike at

For a large percentage of the world’s population, though, peace is in the eye of the beholder. The world at large does not save the word war for those conflicts deemed to be such by an American commander in chief. Most of the world in their simple-minded ignorance thought that the endless conflict in Vietnam was an actual war. No matter how many times we remind them it was a police action, they insist (along with some very unpatriotic Americans) on calling it a war.

It is no doubt a combination of these same international illiterates and a growing number of unpatriotic Americans that now have the audacity to question the meaning of the word “terrorist.” A spin doctor’s work is never done.

For ages, the meaning of terrorism was fairly simple. It was the use of terror to achieve political ends. From the historic standpoint, it was often the tool of a disenfranchised minority lacking sufficient force and resources to launch an actual army. What a state-sponsored military could do by brute force, the “terrorists” had to accomplish by guerilla tactics. Targets appeared, by necessity, to be random. In addition, the choice of targets had to be vicious and heartless enough to strike fear into the general populace, and of sufficient symbolic resonance to make a point. Terrorism was simply a war-byother-means tactic because rebel contingents involved in a conflict could not actually take a city, or take over the reigns of a nation’s media, communications or power supply. Such rebel factions were dubbed “the resistance” if you sympathized with them and “terrorists” if you backed the State.

The twentieth century, it could be argued, offered but variations on a theme. As such dead end philosophies as nihilism and anarchy came of age, the lines between friend and enemy, people and state, or us and them began to blur; in some cases becoming irrelevant. As political and economic ties became more entangled and labyrinth, the targets of terrorism seemed to grow more deliberately arbitrary. Let’s blow up American airliners. Why? Because America supports Israel and Israel is killing Palestinians and taking their land. Well, why not blow up Israeli planes, then? Because they have much better security than the Americans. Oh.

Throw an ever ripening Marxism to the recipe and almost any target becomes justifiable in the name of “class struggle”.

That being said, the word terrorism still remained a constant in political dialogue. The PFLP, or the Red Army Faction or the IRA were terrorists or freedom fighters depending on which side of the fence you sat. You might even sympathize with a cause while decrying certain actions of more militant wings as terrorism.

At this point one could offer a fundamental equation. Terrorism is seldom a product of an ideology or an injured sense of justice. As Camus points out with great insight, terror is what rushes into the void when beliefs and ideologies no longer work. To personalize it even further, it is the unholy offspring of helplessness and rage. When all avenues to change seem inexorably closed and changing a system from within becomes the delusional refuge of old men and impotent pacifists, the option of such extreme and absolute means to an end gains a certain appeal. It is, in most cases, an in extremis grasp at taking back the power so long denied. Needless to say it often smacks of megalomania and a misguided sense of martyrdom.

Without rushing to judgment in cases of military conflict, whether it be the Japanese kamikaze ethos or the military tactics in South Lebanon, it is probably safe to say that the majority of sane individuals of any and all political persuasions concur that the attacks on the World Trade Center or Shi’a holy sites in Iraq this year were not acts of martyrdom but rather of helpless rage against a machine the perpetrators had no hope of dismantling.

Why is it then that the concept of today’s “war on terror” is not only indigestible, but instead sticks in the gullet and prevents so many from even swallowing?


The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture … although it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the supply of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. . .The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact

The very word “war”, therefore, has become misleading. It would probably be accurate to say that by becoming continuous war has ceased to exist. The peculiar pressure that it exerted on human beings between the Neolithic Age and the early twentieth century has disappeared and been replaced by something quite different …

– George Orwell, 1984

There is little doubt in most people’s minds that the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 constituted an act of terrorism. Putting aside the fine lines drawn by those so inclined to cite the Pentagon as a military target while conveniently ignoring the plane load of civilian passengers, it is the WTC that till now remains most deeply seared into the world consciousness. The fact that such an act has met with such profound condemnation by so many opposing ideologies and belief systems is one element that makes it perhaps one of the most purely terroristic actions to date. It is also, by all accounts, the most successful. The use of terror to effect political ends has known no greater success than the suffering and hatred unleashed in response to the strike. As the U.S. continues its transition from victim to victimizes thereby incurring greater wrath, condemnation and abuse from the world at large, one might surmise that Bin Laden knew what he was up to. If the Saudi prodigal son had even an inkling of what kind of Gorgon the U.S. would become in the wake of the attacks, then Thomas Friedman has indeed found the right adjective in the words “brilliant act of terrorism.”

In virtually no time at all, the cabal on Capitol Hill, with their dreams of Empire and domination have been unmasked for what they are: the latest incarnation of the will to power in its most malevolent and self-serving form. Even the last century’s favorite arch-fiend Hitler would have had troubles in curtailing civil liberties and invading foreign countries with such swift and reckless abandon. Even the Third Reich had to fawn, manipulate and rationalize like mad to take Poland. In less than a year, the U.S. has appropriated Afghanistan and Iraq and doesn’t seem the least bit contrite about having their eye on Iran and Syria for the next course.

Previous despots, in their clumsy and unskilled way, loved to begin the process of Empire building with rabble rousing and scapegoating. Tap the collective insecurities and sense of social decay. Blame someone for it. You know the story.

Till 9/11, that is. The trigger happy response of today’s oilfield Machiavels – and never has oligarchy been so shamelessly flaunted as democracy as it has with the Bush dynasty – is not a calculated “What is to be done” but rather a smugly imperial and pyrrhic “who is it to be done to?”

With one brutal stroke, Bin Laden has led the U.S. to the bear trap at the end of the garden path. He has, whether wittingly or not, led the sole remaining superpower on a binge of overexpansion that has been the death knoll of previous empire builders like Napoleon and Hitler to name a few.

Never before has the use of terror to achieve political ends – the ends in this case being the fall of the United States – met with such success.

Such an action cannot help but alter all previous parameters and definitions. The fact that “terrorism” has evolved to new heights, into some hybrid metaterrorism is disturbing. More disturbing still is the fact that the American response has been a war on terror. If we accept the premise that terrorism is “war by other means” in the way that Clausewitz defined war as “politics by other means,” we will be forced to acknowledge that a war against a war-by-othermeans is a psychotic construct and doomed to fail. We grow queasy as the spectacle unfolds, resembling more than anything else the sight of a serpent devouring its own tail.


A brief survey of the current world climate should produce a healthy shudder in someone confronted with the willful ignorance of Americans or Westerners who ask: “Why does the world hate us so much?” An objective, cursory glance at any one of the world’s hellholes reveals systematically impoverished masses that are conveniently not sufficiently despised and neglected enough to be deprived of the right to buy Coca Cola, Marlboro and Adidas.

If we set aside for the moment many of the documented facts at our disposal – the dirty little wars and secret deals, the slush funds and secret ops, and the seemingly endless though unpublicized series of military interventions over the last four or five decades – we would still find plenty of grist for the anti-American hate mill. As a nation, the U.S. seems capable of mass producing hate and rage as fast as it produces second rate automobiles and first rate military hardware.

If it were simply a matter of conflicting world views as the Clash of Civilizations cultists would have us believe; we could scarcely explain away a tenth of the hostilities aimed at the U.S. From within her borders as well as without the tide of resentment rises. It does little good to take action against the manifestations of anti- American sentiment if nothing is done to deal with the root causes.

Think Tank pundits continue taking home handsome salaries to sell us “if it weren’t for the Marxists and Muslims, the world would be a safe happy place” scenarios that make no room for real life glitches in the program like Timothy McVeigh, cyber terrorism or the Los Angeles riots in 1992. The sad fact of the matter is that we are producing anti-American terrorists as rapidly and as uncontrollably as Disney’s mouse produced hell-bent broomsticks in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Without a probing and realistic inquiry into the root causes of terrorism and its increasingly virulent strains, we do little but stick our fingers in a dike rigged with several tons of fertilizer and diesel explosives.

On the other hand, if we bother to examine the causes we would very likely be swamped with data in no time at all. Enough data, one hopes, to straighten out of a particularly bad tailspin. It remains a damning indictment of American sensibility that we remain one of the most racist nations on earth. When Oklahoma City’s Murrah building went up, the country plunged immediately into an anti-Arab (or anything that looks Arab) witch hunt. The weeks following 9/11 saw more of the same.

Why is it then, when 1 go to Iraq these days on an American passport, I’m not met with violent contempt? Rather than being beaten, bullied and buggered, I’m offered tea and a chance to practice my Arabic in lively yet civilized political discussions. One theory about American xenophobia struck me as being particularly apt: most of the world is not under the illusion that their government is there to serve them. Most of the world’s citizens realize that government is a necessary evil best avoided. One Arabic proverb – oft quoted in reference to the ideal relationship between citizen and State-runs: keep far away from evil and sing to it.

Americans, oddly enough, seem to think they actually have a say in how their country is run.

Therein of course lies the rub. How can a people so grossly deluded be expected to interact with their fellow human being as precisely that? A human being. “If our Utopian republic is run by the people, for the people … then yours must be too” is the delusion that leads a great many of us to fear and despise individuals who come from places whose leaders we despise. Political outspokenness is an American trait. Political maturity, alas, is not. Even if such a delusion proved true, leaving us truly empowered to effect change on a grand scale in the day to day affairs of state, we would be hampered by the fact that while students the world over thumb tattered copies of Marx, Weber, Mills, Marcuse, Nietzsche and the like, most Americans feel radical with their nose in a copy of Michael Moore’s latest Looking for political enlightenment in the writings of a humorist tends to make Qadhafi’s Green Book look like a true beacon of social reform.

If terrorism is to be thwarted in any quantifiable sense, then the means of production need to be shut down. The policies that produced the Taliban and Salvador’s ARENA junta, to name but two, need to be met with – at the very least a healthy dose of moral revulsion, instead of our current climate of dazed apathy. Since the one person, one vote fallacy is little more than an excuse for Bush Jr. to laugh up his sleeve; the revolution in question must be social. Like the struggle to end the Vietnam debacle or the fight for Civil Rights, there needs to be a grassroots momentum to reclaim the civil liberties already lost The power of the ballot box has been proven illusionary by the previous election. The power of the wallet, however, has not

By now, one hopes, we all know the game plan. What remains to be seen is what exactly each of us considers worth fighting for. And at what cost Civil disobethence, a refusal to fill IRS and Pentagon coffers, a demand for National Health Care, and enthusiastic support for nonsubsidized media outlets are but a few of the options available to the public. And while the going may not be easy it will no doubt prove far cheaper in the end than the present alternatives.

A government, when faced with increasing amounts of both dissent and outright assaults on its sovereignty usually chooses the most expethent recourse: to bring everything down to black and white by tarring all “enemies” of the state with the ‘terrorist’ brush. Such short term measures ignore long term backlashes. Backlashes that are paid for in tax dollars and civilian body counts.

I, for one, have run out of spare change.


By placing most of the blame at the feet of the NeoCon establishment – a special interest group with its genesis in the Reagan era – it should not be inferred that such figures as Bin Laden, McVeigh or Zarqawi are guilty of little more than being overly miffed and ill-tempered about the state of things. Nor are they merely distorted funhouse images of the adolescent American plundering of world resources and power structures. They have their own dangerous delusions, one of which may be best summed up by yet another Arabic proverb: Fight evil with evil.

I remember being highly amused when I discovered that Iran had been flooding the world market with bogus American dollars, printed on American presses donated during the reign of a long gone Shah. The massive influx of phony bills added to the already inflated dollar’s decline. I noticed a fellow American Muslim was not so amused. Given the fact that he was a frequent visitor to Iran as both a student of Persian and a bookseller specializing in hard to find Islamic texts, I questioned his reticence to at least chuckle over such a wily maneuver on Iran’s part. I said something like, “Talk about fighting fire with fire …”

His response stopped me in my tracks. “Yeah, it’s a fine example of fighting fire with fire.” He paused. “Problem is, the professionals fight fire with water.”

There may be times when subduing evil with evil applies. A serial killer who is judicially executed does not kill again. There are however, many more cases where, as Gandhi summed up, “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

The present impasse between terrorism and retaliatory State-sponsored terrorism seems to bear out the wisdom of the latter. Thanks to Bin Laden and Friends, there are many more Arabs and Muslims dying because of 9/11 than were dying before it. In addition to such sobering statistics, there are the shared Oil Cartel concerns of Bush and Laden thrown in the mix. And that conjures up an image of self-styled Masters of the Universe hunched over a chessboard world, with all us common mortals simply pawns in their game.

There are, I suppose, benefits to being a lead player in a one-dimensional cartoon saga of good and evil. As I finish the final page of this article early one summer morning, the Word program’s spell-check highlights Bin Laden’s name. Thinking that most names don’t register to a computer spell-check program, I prepare to click the ‘ignore all’ option, only to discover I had left out the space between Bin and Laden. Osama it seems has made it into the dictionary.

You and I have not.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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