Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

How valid is the notion of ‘state terrorism’?

As protests in Syria and Yemen are crushed by state security forces, and the civil war that has riven Libya claims ever-more lives, I think this short essay I wrote recently, as practice for an exam, could be a relevant contribution to the way we view the use of violence by the state to crush dissent.

The concept of ‘state terrorism’ is controversial for many scholars and observers of politics. This controversy is certainly unsurprising given that the term ‘terrorism’ itself is widely and varying defined and contested. Yet the use of terror as a means of guaranteeing state security has been an evident and at times explicit phenomenon throughout history. The prototypical example is Robespierre’s ‘Reign of Terror’ in which the security forces of post-Revolution France executed tens of thousands of citizens in political purges designed to root out and eliminate conspirators – imagined or real – and the quintessential example is, enduringly, Nazi Germany. But across the world we may find example after example of regimes using atrocious violence to suppress any threat to their power. The means by which they do so are myriad, and go far beyond mass executions. Yet at a more abstract level, for a state to generate within its constituents a fear of transgression is key to understanding how the criminal justice system deters crime. Unless one accepts the position that all state violence should receive the term ‘terrorism’ (as Noam Chomsky has argued), one might conclude that it is better to avoid the term altogether with reference to government behaviour. However, a rigorous examination of ‘state terrorism’ with reference to both the goals and means of fear-generating actions taken by governments shows that it still retains analytic value, and may indeed provide an extremely effective model for understanding the behaviour of many autocratic regimes today.

Fear is integral to the most basic exercise of governmental power: employing coercive threats to maintain public order. It is not violence that causes people to obey, but the the prospect of violence as a result of disobedience. This axiom was concisely expressed in Weber’s famous definition of the state as that entity which ‘claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a territory.’ The prison is the modern epitome of coercive force to maintain social order, as Foucault has extensively explained. The capacity to detain miscreants and remove them from their milieu is the basis of most state justice systems. Yet as political theorists from Hobbes to Arendt have observed, consent is what permits the state to exercise its coercive power. The consenting polity by and large accepts the license of the state to imprison individuals so long as doing so serves the greater good as most people conceive of it.

Yet when that consent is not so strong, or when the state faces such significant threats from certain segments of its population that imprisonment ceases to be a credible or powerful enough threat, governments begin to move towards forms of violence that would not normally receive public sanction. These include the cultivation of widespread surveillance networks and the use of torture and preemptive or extralegal detention. Few things are as terrifying to a potential dissident as the thought that anyone could be listening and the wrong word or deed could mean the arrest and brutal interrogation of oneself and one’s family, and few things provide such an intelligence torrent for security forces than doing exactly that – as shown more recently by the regimes of Mubarak, Assad, Moi, and  Apatheid South Africa, or more distantly by Stalin and Hitler. When governments exercise  coercive force that transcends the limits of that to which the polity would normally consent, the notion of ‘state terrorism’ becomes a potent analytical tool.

It must also be said that there are many examples of extrajudicial arrest, torture, and execution by states which still enjoyed broad consent of its population. Some such cases include the Argentinian ‘dirty war’ against its Communist dissidents, which saw tens of thousands ‘disappeared’ by the draconian fanaticism of its military government or Uraguay’s similar campaign against the Tupamaros. Here, the marauding death squads and citizen spies existed not merely to safeguard the position of a narrow political oligarchy but to defend a broad segment of the polity from a perceived existential or revolutionary threat. The State of Israel has employed assassination often throughout its history as a means of exacting vengeance and sowing fear amongst its enemies, in addition to achieving more mundane military objectives. Iran too has hunted its dissidents overseas, and the murder of Alexander Litvanenko by Russian intelligence agents is a recent memory for many in London – not to mention in Moscow. Russia and Israel carry out such actions with strong popular support, and the Iranian regime, for all its difficulties, still enjoys widespread legitimacy. So clearly state terrorism not only describes regime activity in cases of a ‘legitimacy deficit’, where a regime must compensate for the absence of sufficient consent from its constituents by terrorising them into obedience, but also in cases of episodic insurgent threats to a population that desires protection by any means necessary.

In considering the examples of the preceding two paragraphs, one can list the most common tactics of state terrorism. Imprisonment is part of any modern justice system, but extrajudicial or arbitrary detention is not. Neither are laws permitting such arrests when they are issued by the judiciary of a state which enjoys no real legitimacy amongst its constituency. Torture is almost always a technique of terrorism in addition to being a means of gathering intelligence. The use of citizen militias as government proxies to carry out assaults or killings in the name of public order is a common tactic of regimes hoping to crush dissent and secure obedience. Agents of the military or intelligence apparatus may cross into foreign countries in pursuit of fleeing dissidents, and through assassination leave a grim reminder that ‘you can run, but you cannot hide.’ Finally, public acts of severe violence such as public flogging, beheading, stoning, or even rape have been used by the enforcement arms of regimes such as the Taliban to sear into the minds of any witnesses that criminals receive punishments of atrocious brutality, at the hands of an all-powerful police.

In considering the significant relevance of fear as a tool of governance, and the violent tactics used by many contemporary regimes in generating that fear, it is clear that the notion of state terrorism carries analytic validity. The means by which a government compensates for deficits in legitimate public consent, or crushes an insurgent threat, bear notable similarities to those used by terrorist groups from the heart of Western Europe to the hinterlands of the Pakistani tribal zones, and go far beyond the routines of law enforcement in most democratic countries. By considering these means and connecting them to the need of governments for public obedience, it is possible to speak of ‘state terrorism’ as something specific and distinct, and assess its moral character accordingly.

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2 responses to “How valid is the notion of ‘state terrorism’?

  1. Thomas November 28, 2014 at 11:58 am

    Haha after writing this I realized this post is ancient, but I’ll post anyways because this statement is silly.
    “Unless one accepts the position that all state violence should receive the term ‘terrorism’ (as Noam Chomsky has argued), one might conclude that it is better to avoid the term altogether with reference to government behaviour.”

    Are you deliberately trying to misrepresent Noam Chomsky’s arguments or do you misunderstand them?

    • Said Simon November 28, 2014 at 5:01 pm

      I can’t recall which of Chomsky’s specific facile editorials I was responding to back when I wrote this, but he seemed to be making the absurd suggestion that all systematic, fear-generating state violence was ‘state terrorism’. Perhaps the problem is that Chomsky misunderstands Chomsky, in that he may not have considered the implications of his view. Certainly there are some traditions of political thought which would endorse this claim—anarchism, for example—but as you seem to agree, it is a silly view.

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