The recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, along with the one near Camp David in Pennsylvania, were undoubtedly acts of terrorism. The perpetrators of these acts hijacked passenger planes full of people and crashed them into buildings without giving a thought to the passengers of the plane or the visitors who frequent the World Trade Center. The indiscriminate nature of its violence, justified with a political rationalization, is what distinguishes terrorism from other forms of violence. But if one thinks about this too carefully, some frightening parallels become evident. What, after all, is the bombing of hospitals, orphanages, residential areas, rice paddies, rural villages–if not indiscriminate violence? Yet this is the practice that the United States government carried out in Viet Nam and Iraq, and that the United Nations forces largely under U.S. control carried out in Yugoslavia. Oh, of course, there were good reasons for these acts, political rationalizations to justify these acts of indiscriminate violence. Yes, the parallels are, indeed, frightening. But these actions carried out by the U.S. government were acts of state, police actions, acts of war–and this apparently distinguishes them from acts of terrorism.
In this light though, the words of Senator John McCain are telling. Speaking of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Camp David, he said, "These attacks clearly constitute an act of war." But if acts of terrorism can be acts of war, then the acts of indiscriminate violence carried out by the United States government and its allies in the Viet Nam war, in the Gulf war, in the "police action" in Yugoslavia must all be considered acts of terrorism–unless the definition of the act changes depending on who does it.
In fact, if we look at the origin of the word terrorism, we find that it traces back to the Reign of Terror in France in the 1790’s, when the newly established republican state used indiscriminate violence to destroy all resistance to its rule whether from the old aristocracy or from the underclass who dreamed of taking the revolution much farther than the mere founding of a republic. Thus, terrorism, in its origin, was a practice of indiscriminate violence carried out by a state to reinforce its power. Furthermore, this new French state was supposedly a democratic state–a rule by the people. According to the ideology of democracy, the state is the people. For the French state established in the 1790’s, this meant that all enemies of the state were enemies of the people, and this was sufficient justification for the indiscriminate violence of the Reign of Terror. But the equation of the state with the people provides justification for terrorism in another way. If a people are the state that rules them, then an attack against those people is an attack against their state. The method of warfare carried out by democratic states throughout the world indicates that this is precisely the thinking of the leaders of those states–to bomb hospitals, schools, orphanages, rice paddies, residential areas is to bomb the Yugoslav, Iraqi, Vietnamese states. Should we then be surprised when the contenders for state power who lack the resources of the United States government use this same horrifyingly democratic logic with the means they have at their disposal? Though these people may not yet be established in power, their acts can rightly be considered acts of a state in potential–acts of war, and so, due to the current methodology of war, acts of terrorism.
The American state will use these recent acts to justify intensified repression, the democratically accepted suppression of freedom. Acts of revolt will be painted with the brush of terrorism. But real terrorism is always an act of indiscriminate, rationalized violence aimed at the establishment and enforcement of power. Thus one can rightly equate acts of war, police actions and acts of terrorism. All are acts of state–actual states or potential states. And only the destruction of the state can bring an end to terrorism. If, as Bush says, "we have seen evil", it is in the terrorism the state imposes on our lives day after day.