Notes Toward a Terror Apologist’s Rhetoric (Abridged but Unexpurgated)

This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on June 3, 2013.

Apologia in the rhetorical tradition is not a common apology, in the simple sense of “sorry,” though it may fulfill that purpose. It may decidedly not. Apologia is a defense against accusation. Plato gave us Socrates’sApology, which was not. In the religious tradition, apologia is known as apologetics. Apologetics are a defense of doctrine, certainly not an apology for it. One of the features of apologia as a rhetorical form is its variety of type, from outright apology to outright rejection of any need for one. In between we may see explanation or justification, evasion of responsibility, minimization of the offense, and more. One tactic of the apologia seeks to draw convoluting distinctions, or conversely, to eliminate clarifying distinctions, in order to redefine the terms of the offense so as to rationalize it away.

The post 9/11 era has been a veritable golden age of terrorist apologia. Of course, we have always had it. “Let them eat cake,” in the context in which it was purportedly said, even before the French Revolution, is a form of terrorist apologia: it seeks, as one type, to reduce the offense. And today’s golden age stands on the shoulders of the classical age of Marxist-Leninist apologia. Got a problem with dictatorship as a form of terror? How about bourgeois dictatorship to justify the supposed proletarian replacement for it?

“The most democratic bourgeois republic is no more than a machine for the suppression of the working class,” said Lenin at the First Communist International.

It is the “no more” that is really rich. One tactic of terror apologia, the muddying of distinctions, attempts to turn the solid ground of complexity into the swamp of confusion. Terror apologia does this in order to erase the useful meanings of the words that can be used against the source of the terror. So Marxists attacked the meaning of democracy. They defanged the threat of dictatorship. Slavoj Zizek authors a book entitled Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? in defense of – guess. Now, whereas Marxists in their revolutionary ascendance championed revolutionary terror, terror apologists frequently argue that the word, used these days against the interests they defend, has no meaning.

Events of recent weeks – the Boston bombings and the savage murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in London – have delivered a new round of rank and ill-reasoned apologias for terrorism, offered in the same low and recognizable style that took shape immediately after 9/11. They provide a source for some rough notes toward a rhetoric of terror apologia. As it happens one source readily serves to provide much of these early notes. England’s Guardian, apparently intent on establishing not only that it has hit the bottom of the barrel in its political commentary, but is determinedly scraping it, hired away from Salon Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is that terror apologist who has yet to encounter the hackneyed thought he will not think or the trite articulation he will not utter. A former civil liberties attorney, he refers to himself these days as a writer, but surely that is only in the mechanical sense.

Any nascent rhetoric of terrorist apologia has to begin with the key term itself.

“Terrorism” is a meaningless term

Greenwald and his confreres assert this regularly. Last year, in his final column for Salon, Greenwald wrote,

That is what Terrorism is: a term of propaganda, a means of justifying one’s own state violence — not some objective field of discipline in which one develops “expertise.”

He concluded by affirming,

It is a telling paradox indeed that this central, all-justifying word is simultaneously the most meaningless and therefore the most manipulated.

Greenwald was writing there about what he and others refer to as a “terrorism expert industry.” He was drawing on the work of his favorite scholar on the subject, Remi Brulin, who has studied the use of the word terrorism post World War II and particularly beginning with U.S. counter-insurgency efforts in Central America in the 1980s under Reagan. Brulin also ties this development to Israeli adoption of the term after the Six-Day War to refer to Arab – well, excuse me, but I cannot find a more accurate word – terrorism against it.

As recently as last week, as part of a back and forth with Andrew Sullivan over the murder of Rigby,Greenwald claimed that

it is difficult to devise a definition of “terrorism” that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners.

Later in the same piece, Greenwald referred to the work of another scholar, Harvard’s Lisa Stampnitzky, whose book

makes the argument indicated by its title: “Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’”. The functional meaninglessness of the term “terrorism” and its highly manipulative exploitation are vital to several political agendas.

We see in these quotations, two of the primary tactics of terror apologia. The first is to muddy the waters so as to render the term terrorism ineffective in designating the barbarisms of contemporary Islamists and of other movements, such as the Iraqi and Taliban insurgencies and the Second Palestinian Intifada, that utilized for instance, the tactic of suicide bombing and, in some cases, beheading. By asserting that the term is misapplied, even purposely misused, and by repeating programmatically that it is thus meaningless, the intent is to render it just that.

At the same time, a covert counter effort is being pursued. When Greenwald says that “it is difficult to devise a definition of ‘terrorism’ that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners,” such a declaration aims at multiple effects. One is that terrorism is effectively disempowered as a meaningful designation of the automobile, hacking and beheading attack on Rigby. A contrary effect is that the referenced U.S., U.K. and allied war activities now become stuck with the term.

What are they talking about? the not unsympathetic reader of Greenwald thinks – look at those invaded countries, those dead children from Western air attacks. They’re the terrorists.

(Greenwald accompanied this commentary with, of course, a photograph of dead Afghan children. A whole other, visual rhetoric is developing around the use of dead children images.)

A third possible effect, no less possible because self-contradictory, is that the pure sense of the terrorizing nature of such acts as those by Islamists is diminished, the force of moral censure lessened – aided, additionally, by that claim that Islamist acts are “blowback” – even as the conviction grows that Western acts are themselves terroristic, and original, in nature. The definitional challenge, then, is actually quite a clever stratagem: to employ a chess metaphor, it is a move that sacrifices a rook (any claim to meaning for the word terrorism) with the prospect not only of capturing the Queen (loosening the connection to Islamist acts) but of checkmating the King as well (strengthening the connection to Western actions).

These are rhetorical strategies. Can we sight a true field of contest behind the screen of maneuvers? Yes, we can. Despite the efforts to obfuscate understanding of a concept and the distinctions among actual events to which a concept might apply, we can distinguish a clear concept – a meaningful definition – from faulty application.

Note, for instance this curious self-refutation. Greenwald’s go-to scholarly sources on the corrupted nature of terrorism as a concept aim their critiques specifically at expert “invention” and maintenance of the idea. Stampnitzky’s book is subtitled “How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism.’” Brulin, too, has focused his research on the role of experts in the modern development and promulgation of the idea. Greenwald titled that last post at Salon, “The sham ‘terrorism expert’ industry.

Now, what has Greenwald done in response? He has called in his own “experts” to offer a counter history and narrative.  Well, fine, that is what intellectual discourse involves, in addition to the quality of the arguments and the raw evidence – the testimony, and its quality, of experts in a field. The deciding factors in any intellectual debate will not be derisory quotation marks around a word or the sham character of the experts, but the sham character – if that it be – of the arguments.

Experts that Greenwald and his sources disapprove make one set of arguments. Greenwald and his own experts make theirs. What we want to consider, particularly with respect to argument over a word and its meaning, is the coherence of the concept being considered. One of Brulin’s particular areas of focus, and his very special objection, is to the disqualification, as part of the meaning of terror, of  state terror in application by those he believes manipulate its use today. He pays pointed attention to that U.S. support in the 80s for the regime in El Salvador, with its death squads, to which I add the U.S.’s material support for the Guatemalan government’s genocidal program against Mayan peasants during a similar period. Brulin argues that the one-sided application of the concept of terrorism only to non-state actors, in favor of the state institutions of power, diminishes the credibility of those who work with so slanted an application.

I agree. To the degree that anyone’s definition or application has been so slanted, it does diminish – fatally, I aver – that person’s credibility on the issue. Terror is terror, whoever inflicts it. “Terrorism is terrorism,” Brulin himself declared in Foreign Policy.

Ah, but according to Greenwald, that word “is simultaneously the most meaningless and therefore the most manipulated.” Notice, too, that Greenwald, crawling very far out on the phantom limb to which he is regularly drawn, does not say that the word is meaningless because it is manipulated – the common critique from his quarters – but manipulated because it is meaningless. The word, according to Greenwald, simply has no meaning. Yet even Brulin does not claim that.

In a 2010 interview with Greenwald, Brulin commented on the historical significance, in developing the contemporary understanding of terrorism as a concept, of the Israeli Jonathan Institute, named after Jonathan Netanyahu. In response to a question from Greenwald, Brulin offered,

Actually, it’s interesting, because they did come up with a definition which is more or less similar to one that you mentioned earlier in one of your pieces, meaning the one from the State Department, and it’s a very basic definition – I’m trying to find it here, yeah, it’s right here – “terrorism is the deliberate systematic murder, maiming and menacing of innocents to inspire fear in order to gain political ends.” So there is nothing that is controversial about that definition; it is very broad. It is nonspecific.

What Brulin means – what he should be meaning – when he says this definition is not controversial is that it is not political. It is not at all, as he claims, broad and nonspecific: it is clearly distinguishing of behavior and purpose, without ideological tendency, a characteristic of the definition with which both he and Greenwald should be pleased. Somehow, they are not. The distinguishing terms “deliberate,” “systematic,” and “innocents” are nonetheless vital to this definition.

Brulin then goes on to speak about how the term was politicized at the 1979 conference of which he speaks, and at a second in 1984. However, this raises the distinction once again, which Greenwald is always at pains to smear, between definition and application. It is not a distinction that, Noam Chomsky, for instance, in so many respects in sympathy with Greenwald and Brulin, fails to recognize. Well before 9/11, in 1991, Chomsky contributed to a collection, Western State Terrorism, the essay “International Terrorism: Image and Reality,” in which he began by observing, in different words, this distinction.

There are two ways to approach the study of terrorism. One may adopt a literal approach, taking the topic seriously, or a propagandistic approach, construing the concept of terrorism as a weapon to be exploited in the service of some system of power.

The “literal” approach is toward a clear, accurate, and unbiased elucidation of a concept.  The “propagandistic” approach is political, in the determination to corrupt the definition by restricted application. Chomsky’s further, explanatory “exploited in the service of some system of power” is entirely gratuitous. Exploitation of a concept in service of a biased end requires no system of power, merely an exploitative actor of any kind, like a columnist for a British daily. That addition is Chomsky’s own ideological bias irresistibly distorting his pretense of explanatory clarity. Still, the  point is made again: misapplication of a concept, distortion or manipulation of a concept, is distinct from the absence of a meaningful concept. To misuse a word by restricted application is not to rob the word of meaning, unless, that is, some people will grasp at the opportunity to achieve that end, for their own purposes.

Brulin’s purpose, in part, joined by Greenwald, was well summed by the latter in that final Salon post.

From the start, the central challenge was how to define the term so as to include the violence used by the enemies of the U.S. and Israel, while excluding the violence the U.S., Israel and their allies used, both historically and presently. That still has not been figured out, which is why there is no fixed, accepted definition of the term, and certainly no consistent application.

This description serves several ends. Again, though the distinguishing language of “definition” and “application” appear, Greenwald is incapable of holding them in his mind in clear and distinct relation to each other. More, since the purpose of this exposition is to establish the role of Israel and of “neocons,” in creating the current ideologized understanding of terrorism, there is also the subtle contribution of asserting of this role that it “still has not been figured out” – a clear call to those inclined to nefarious conspiracy mongering, which, of course, inevitably leads to this

Most importantly for this consideration, the description returns us yet once more to that apparent effort to render the word and the notion of terrorism meaningless. There is, Greenwald will repeatedly declare in differing formulations, “no fixed, accepted definition of the term.”

Is there, then, one wonders – just to choose a comparative example – a fixed and accepted definition of so profoundly important a word as “justice,” which is not yet to address any “consistent application of the concept? Just try attaching the word “social” to the notion of justice and see the arguments that ensue.

Yet the 1979 conference organized by the Jonathan Institute did arrive at a clear definition – a definition, I assert, that is the one most people, encountering or using the term, more or less have in mind. Has such a definition not been fairly applied in some quarters, and by institutions of power, to all the various manifestations of terrorism in the world? Fair and trenchant criticism. But, then, what is the goal of this criticism? To perform a balanced corrective or to, in actual effect, reverse the charge?

If we review that answer Brulin gave Greenwald on the definition of terrorism devised at the ’79 Jontahan Institute conference, we see that Brulin claimed that it “is more or less similar to … the one from the State Department.” However, this is the U.S. State Department definition:

premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.

Note that the State Department definition does, in the manner objected to by Brulin, Greenwald, and many others, restrict the understanding of terrorism to violence perpetrated by non-state actors. By this definition, the Stalinist purges (“The Great ‘Terror’”), China’s Cultural Revolution, the Argentine and Chilean disappearance campaigns of the 1970s and 80s under the Generals and Pinochet, the Killing Fields campaign of slaughter by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, the wide array of genocidal campaigns against the world’s indigenous populations could none of them be labeled terrorism. The State Department’s definition is clearly formulated to focus attention on one kind of terrorism and away from state terror. Noam Chomsky’s description, we saw, was pointedly directed in an opposing manner, toward (“systems of power”) state terror only. The Jonathan Institute conference definition erred in neither of these directions. Yet Brulin and Greenwald quickly dismissed it.

Recall that Glenn Greenwald, in sympathy with many like him, wrote just days ago that

it is difficult to devise a definition of “terrorism” that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners.

How little Greenwald pays attention, even to himself. The Jonathan Institute definition referred to “the deliberate systematic murder, maiming and menacing of innocents.” However much some may think the U.S. and others screwed the pooch in Iraq or misapplied themselves at some point or other in Afghanistan, do they truly wish to argue that just as Al Qeada and its varied Islamist affiliates and sympathizers, and just as the Iraqi insurgency and the Taliban today, these Western nations engaged or are engaging in “deliberate,” in “systematic” attack on innocents? (Does Glenn Greenwald wish to claim that the images of dead children he exploits for the purpose of ideological contest in a daily newspaper were the victims of “deliberate, systematic murder”?) Well actually, some people do. We know that. Some people do argue that.

In which case, well and clear. We can argue that instead and for real, or, in some cases not – standing, we recognize, at uncorrectably cross purposes to one another. But let us not pretend, then, that the difference is over the meaning of the word terrorism. Let us not pretend that the disagreement is fundamentally definitional, linguistic, or rhetorical. There is, indeed, a rhetorical war in progress. But to reverse Clausewitz, as politics can be the continuation of war by other means, rhetoric is a continuation of politics by other means. Among its varied uses, it can smoke the battlefield and screen our movements. Some people blow a lot of smoke.

Let us be clear, instead, about where we stand, who we stand with, or against, and what we stand for.


(Next time: more notes, more rhetoric, more nonsense.)

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2 thoughts on “Notes Toward a Terror Apologist’s Rhetoric (Abridged but Unexpurgated)

  1. If I may ask, in my own usual simplistic manner: there is an old dictionary definition of the word “terrorism”: “The calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature. ”

    So far I have yet to see experts (esp. in non-precise sciences, no disrespect meant) that are too shy to introduce a new term where an old one will not suffice. Some of them are actually thriving on overabundance of “professional” terms that make their domain too esoteric for a mere mortal, but that’s a totally different subject.

    So why, if the existing definition of terrorism isn’t broad enough for some to include the cases covered by “state terrorism”, doesn’t the latter term make these experts happy enough to lay off the poor “terrorism”?

    1. Snoop, count on you to visit, of all places, a dictionary. You are right, of course. The definition you share is really identical, in variant wording, to that of the Jonathan Institute conference offering. “Deliberate, systematic” there takes the place of “calculated” here, for instance. Probably the definition you found dates back to before the term became so weighted with ideological contest. Though the likes of Greenwald and Brulin dismissed the conference definition, it was, like this one here, straight forward, unslanted, which is obviously why it does not satisfy them. But why should they trust a dictionary any more? It, too, is written by “experts” (from a “non-precise science” :-).

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