Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why call it terrorism?

Hal Pepinsky,,
January 12, 2013
                This past week I attended a lecture by a political scientist distinguished for her research on causes and effects of terrorism.  Her review of prior literature included her choice of operational definition of the word.  She acknowledged controversy in the field over definition.  Her definition was designed to include the widest possible array of national data sets in her own database.  To begin with, only non-state actors can by definition do terrorism; state sponsorship is irrelevant, except as to whether non-state actors are foreign nationals.  Second, those defined as terrorist don’t also make war on military targets or installations.  Third, their weapons of choice are bombs or improvised explosive devices, so that those who instead burn down villages and gun down, rape and kidnap women and children don’t count, and neither would bombs and missiles if those the US government doesn’t recognize as state actors could afford to have them.  The data on these terrorists alone can then be compared to militarized national resistance movements that do not use bombs and ieds in public gathering places.  While the definition of terrorism may be politically loaded, the research within the research paradigm remains value-free—a data base for purely objective scientific study.
                Never mind that family members and friends who help lay bombs along Afghan roads aim to drive out forces who shoot up and rain fire on their homes by state authority—that war persists where fire is met with equally righteous fire.  Never mind that making peace entails transforming mutual condemnation and intervention into mutual respect and dignity for one another’s motives—from judgment to empathy.  Peacemaking entails abandonment of pretense of moral superiority.  It entails obedience to a cardinal principle of conflict resolution: no name calling.  Warfare is fueled whenever we define a group of “them” as different from “us”—in this case confining the study of terrorists to the study of those the US government does not recognize as state actors.  This is the international relations equivalent of criminologists defining the problem of violence as the problem of the criminal.  The impetus for what has become known as critical criminology came alive in the late sixties when the US justice department took over domination of research funding, and some of us criticized mainstream criminologists as servants of the state.  It appears the same can be said for limiting the study of policies of knowingly killing civilians to the kinds of people the US government is prepared to recognize as terrorist “perps.”  You may want to learn how to identify and treat actual and potential terrorists as “humanely” as some criminologists propose to substitute treatment of offenders for punishment, but the problem remains limited to doing something to those our states define as our enemies.
                I have been wrestling with accounting for my own religiosity in my recent posts.  Suppose I turn the question of whether I am distinctly religious on its head:  How do those social scientists who bound their research populations by the kind of data governments collect and use, defend the “scientific validity” of their findings as “best evidence” for “best practices” to apply to people other than themselves, if not on religious faith that their data are more “empirical” than the experience of those they purport to know about?  How can some be competent to speak for what “we” know about “them” without presuming to be closer to godliness?  Diagnosing and treating people as problem categories requires a kind of religious faith I don’t have, a cause for war rather than a remedy.  Love and peace--hal

1 comment:

  1. I like this. I can tell you are really smart by the vocabulary and syntax (<-- I think that's the correct word). I had to read some parts a few times to fully understand your arguements but that is my shortcoming. I believe that the definition of terrorism is changing, and that the studies are as shaky as the definition. You made a great point about war being fueled by an "us" and "them" pretense, and everyone on this planet could benefit from a bit of selflessness and brotherhood. I worry sometimes that one day the concept of terrorism will be manipulated into a label of condemnation used at the governments fancy in a way that the term "heresy" used to condemn people. :/ I hope that even if you disagree with my opinions that I atleast wrote them in a way that you can understand the point I am trying to convey.