Saturday, February 20, 2010

What's Terrorism Got to Do, Got to Do With it?

Richard over at My Buddha is Pink made some very interesting observations about the man who crashed a plane into the side of the IRS building in Austin, Texas.

Joseph Stack was a troubled man; that is not too difficult for anyone to see. His despair must have been profound. Yet, when you read his manifesto, it becomes very clear that he accepted no personal responsibility for his actions. He quite plainly took significant time to justify in his mind what he intended to do (remember, kamma is based on intent): “I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are. Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.”

What a desperate and deluded mind to reach such an ominous conclusion. And we learned that it wasn’t just the people in that building in Austin who were being targeted by his delusion. Prior to his fateful flight, the night before, he had a terrible argument with his wife, who fled with their daughter to spend the night elsewhere. Thank goodness for that. For the next day, Stack set fire to his home before he fled to attempt mass murder.

Excellent points. And they lead directly to one of my points: namely, the way the whole story was framed. Both the act of crashing the plane, as well as burning the house and even probably, the fight with his wife, were all acts of terrorism. You heard me, terrorism.

One of the many reasons, in my opinion, that there is so much violence in the United States, especially the dramatic stuff like mass murders, is that we collectively fail to call a spade a spade.

When the young Nigerian man failed to blow up a plane heading to Detroit, he was almost immediately declared a terrorist by the U.S. government, the media, and most of the population in the United States. Why? He was black and Muslim. Period. Instant recipe for having your violent act called terrorism.

Meanwhile, the middle aged, white computer techy whose rage at the IRS and others nearly turned deadly was declared not a terrorist by the U.S. government, and is widely being framed as a man who flipped, went too far, etc.

The reality is that both men committed acts of terrorism. And the same can be said of Professor Amy Bishop, who recently murdered three of her colleagues on a campus in Alabama. The same also, though, can be said of most people who kill others, those who commit rape, those who beat their spouses, those who create a pattern of verbal abuse and threats that keep others under their control - the list can go on and on. These kinds of actions can occur within the context of a family or other group of intimately linked people. And these kinds of actions can also occur within communities, even entire nations (Burma and North Korea come to mind currently). Along these lines, no matter how seemingly "noble," every act of warfare is an act of terrorism.

One of the many problems with the terrorist label is that it's a fixed identity, one that has become affixed to certain groups of people, and is almost never used anywhere else. When you consider from a Buddhist perspective anyone who is labeled a "terrorist," they are completely made up of non-terrorist elements. In fact, the vast majority of their lives would probably be considered non-terroristic, even for the worst of offenders. No one is able to maintain a single mode of behavior over the course of even a single day, let alone a lifetime. The label, in other words, fails completely to give an accurate picture of reality.

It would be more accurate to focus on the actions themselves. The origin of the word "terror" is from the Latin for "to frighten." A deliberate act of trying to instill fear in another, or group of others. As such, everything I spoke of above fits into the category of terror.

Why does any of this matter? Why am I rambling on and on yet again about "terrorism"? Well, consider the line Richard pulled from the Five Recollections:

I am the owner of my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide support in my kamma – whatever kamma I do, skillful or unskillful, to that I fall heir.

When we label one person's actions, or one group's actions as terrorism and spend countless amounts of energy,time, and resources pursuing these people in an effort
to eradicate them, out of a fear that they will eradicate us - and at the same time, label other people's actions as simply the deeds of a loner, lunatic, or fringe group, we fail, both individually, and collectively, to see the full impact of the kamma created by all such actions. In other words, we create a skewed image that we then attach to as "the truth," and then allow it to guide our thoughts, responses, and actions. Pretty unskillful if you ask me.

What would it look like if we routinely and pervasively labeled warfare as terrorism? What if every act of rape, mass murder, pattern of coercive speech was publicly declared terrorism? And what if we we put as much time, energy, and resources into preventing such acts, as we do chasing rouge Muslims across deserts and investing in tanks, bombs, and other weapons of mass destruction?

Perhaps things would be different. Don't you think?


Kyle said...

I agree, no doubt what he did was an act of terror, even if for different reasons that the Nigerian. And to say otherwise is to be diseingenious. He is no different than Tim McViegh.

Sara said...

Really thought-provoking post, as usual.

I am dealing at the moment with someone in my family whose behaviour, I've just realised, in some ways fits the label of 'terrorism.' This person isn't violent in action, but is definately violent with words, and with the way they try to 'terrorise' other people into silence.

I can see how I also try to terrorise myself! I might have the thought that 'if I do x' then something truly terrible will happen to me. In this way, I am putting up a wall of fear and terror as a way to try to alter my own behaviour.

It's very interesting to think about the word terrorism in this way.

Nathan said...

Hi Emma,

Yes, "self-directed terrorism" - maybe that would be a good way to put it. Just thinking about it now, I can imagine that many of these more visible, violent acts committed in the world probably begin with some sort of self-directed terrorism.


Al said...

Terrorism has become a meaningless term and this doesn't help the case.

Anyone who does something violent with an intent to frighten is now a terrorist? What does using that label gain anyone except attaching a "scary" word to actions? It doesn't MEAN anything anymore.

Robyn said...

I think you are spot on, Nathan.

It is very telling that Fox News described him early on, before everything was known, as having "an American-sounding name". Speaks volumes about who we allow to be terrorists.

Nathan said...

Hi Al,

To me, it's most important to focus on the actions themselves. The main problem, as I see it, with the label terrorist (besides it's complete overuse as you stated) is that it implies some fixed identity that isn't there. It's more accurate to speak about actions as causing terror, which is a different approach (in my view) than what we have now.


Anonymous said...


So now 'terrorism' is any violent act? This makes the word meaningless.

There IS a difference between any violent act and terrorism.

For it to be a terrorist act, surely, it has to have an ideological "justification" or done in the name of an ideology, and be supported by an organisation.

The terrorist who tried to blow up a plane at Christmas was motivated and supported by an Islamo-fascist ideology and groups.

The nutcase that flew a plane into a building last week did not, I suspect, have an ideology to 'justify' this or an organised network of fellow-believers to support him.


Nathan said...


You've said the same thing on every post I have made about terrorism. We disagree - I accept that. I have nothing more to say that won't fall into precept breaking.