By now you would think there would be some pause in the grisly ceremony: a killing in Europe or the United States has barely hit the news before it is being claimed as an act of terror. The disturbed young men in Germany, France and the United Kingdom who have meted out death in recent weeks and months have one thing in common. After the initial rush to judgement and the suggestion of a well-organised “lone wolf”, the layers peel away, and a more complex truth is revealed: a young man, of Arab or African heritage but Western upbringing and citizenship, has gone berserk on a train station or street and killed two or three or four, and injured more.

These killings, similar in form, initially constructed as terrorism pure and simple, were soon hedged by right-wing commentators. Though it was not terrorism in the strictest sense, they said, this was still part of the wave of violent Islamism spreading across the world and deserved to be known as such. Anything less would be to let this new form of terror off the hook. This move has been followed by a counter move among those who see the focus on Islamist terrorism as distorting the real character of violence in Western societies: to define other forms of violence as “terror”, initially violence against women, and then violence against indigenous people.

The motives of those who would seek to expand the definition of “terrorism” to that which has hitherto been considered social crime is understandable. But it’s following a questionable path, one that increasingly seeks to brand crimes, and judge between motives. Furthermore, it obscures the real and more complex process by which crime and terrorism are changing. In an era when terror has become an obsession, “terrorism” as we have known it for a century and a half is starting to be crowded out by a hybrid form of atrocity, which admits of no easy definition. Terrorism, the ultimate political act, is yielding, because politics itself is yielding its position in social and historical life. The endless debate about what is and isn’t terrorism continues because we have not yet accustomed ourselves to the manner in which the whole socio-cultural form of our society is changing.

[Rundle: fighting terrorism with violence only creates more terrorists]

“Terrorism” as a conscious, yet unnamed, practice — sudden unearned death and destruction — was a product of the state, and has a history going back thousands of years. It’s a measure of how thoroughly it has become identified with non-state groups that “state terror” now requires an adjective to bring it out of the shadows. (The political effect of this is obvious: Assad can blow 10,000 heads off with barrel bombs and be seen as a “strongman”; Islamic State cuts off 200, makes a video of it, and is a threat to civilisation.)

In Russia in the mid-1800s, following the failure of more conventional movements against tsarist autocracy, a self-identified Terror Party was born. The “terror” was directed at the tsarist royal family and government. Civilians caught in the blast — as a terrorist rushed a tsarist carriage to deposit a crude bomb — were held to be acceptable casualties (though the bomb was not directed at them). It’s this large-scale attack — resorted to after pistol assassinations failed — that gave the terrorists their fearsome reputation.

The practice spread to western Europe, and then to the US. The Irish Fenians adopted it, then US anarchists and a radical wing of the labour movement adopted it, a response to extremely violent repression of union organising amid terrible work conditions. By the 20th century, the radical left had competition from European imperialist powers who had turned terror on the indigenous populations of their colonies. The ultimate result of this was World War I, in which mass slaughter of each other’s armies became an instrumental strategy, not a moral crime. The Bolsheviks eschewed individual terror and adopted state terror once in power, defining class and political affiliation as categories for mass killing.

Modern terrorism as a defined strategy was born from this period — more or less a century ago — when Michael Collins re-oriented the Irish Republican Army’s strategy from one focused on the occupying British army and its soldiers to lethal violence against “softer” targets: local informers, helpers and enablers. “Terror” emerged as a primarily psychological tool — who would risk having his neck slashed for a few shillings? The strategy got the British out of (most of) Ireland and started the slow and bloody demolition of European imperialism.

On the other side of Europe, in Istanbul, Ze’ev Jabotinsky started the movement — revisionist Zionism — that would birth the other aspect of 20th-century terror: the Irgun. Initially a Zionist defence group in the Palestinian “mandate” territory of the 1930s, the Irgun (huge fans of Collins) began small lethal reprisals against Arab civilians — any Arab civilians — as both a reprisal and a terror strategy. At this point — shortly before World War II — the character of modern terrorism was set, and it did not change until the 21st century.

Crucial to a terrorist strategy were two aspects: one, it was aimed at civilians, or indifferent to their involvement; two, it was measured and limited, a form of meted-out death. Crucial to that was the form of the terrorist organisation: a small, military-style body, with both internal discipline, and members who had internalised self-discipline — who saw violence as a means, not an end. The point of terrorism was, as a strategy, to project ruthlessness and determination, to detach a civilian population from its unthinking support for a regime. It required for its success a force of people who were neither disgusted by the act, nor thrilled by it.

[Rundle: Charlie Hebdo, terrorism and the distortion of popular memory]

But that is a difficult line to manage. For every group like Greece’s “17 November” who stayed in business for two decades via a series of targeted assassinations of NATO and US military and political personnel, there were many others who strayed into sectarian killings, or an arrogant cult of violence.

For many commentators, 9/11 marks a breach between this older world of small-group/small-target terror; and if not drawn there, the line goes between al-Qaeda and the rise of Islamic State groups. But I wonder if it is time to revise that division, and ask if it is the very recent spate of individual attacks that mark the end of the era of modern terrorism and the beginning of something else.

It is true that while both al-Qaeda and IS have broken one of the rules of modern terrorism — limited and targeted lethality — they retain the form of modern terrorism, with political aims enacted by terror. Al-Qaeda’s goal might be the Islamisation of the world, but its immediate goal was the expulsion of the West from the de-facto caliphate — the Muslim lands stretching from Morocco to Pakistan (and also Indonesia and Malaysia). It explicitly noted that it would not target countries like Sweden, which it did not consider part of the “crusader West”.

That is not to give any points to this appalling and evil group, but to point out its remnant political character. If al-Qaeda is “nihilistic”, it is because its means — unlimited body counts — admit of no limit. In terms of ends, it is clearly focused on a cause that is not the spread of violence for its own sake. The same is true of those IS-branded acts that appear to have some link back to an actual IS command. Acts like the Bataclan massacre are chilling — and are probably designed as such because the West has become jaded with bombings per se. (How many actively remember the al-Qaeda Madrid train bombings, killing 220 people? How large a presence does it have in our memory?). The Bataclan massacre — death doled out slowly — revives the pure presence of imminent death that gives terrorism its terrifying quality. Car crash, cancer, anything but that, we pray, when we hear of such events.

The neocons who destroyed Iraq and made it the crucible of totalised Islamist terror were desperate to paint al-Qaeda as a “nihilist” group. Now that Western forces are almost certainly working with al-Qaeda groups in Syria, al-Qaeda has slipped from the news agenda. In the Western discourse, IS militants have become the new “nihilists”. It’s an image they play up to with their “branding” — the black masks, the orange jump suits, the New Romanticism meets snuff videos — because it is convenient to them to take on one version of the “nihilist” tag, the idea that this world is nothing, just a way station, on the way to reunification with the Godhead in paradise, through death.

IS’ “nihilism” is this-worldly; the nothingness of this existence is simply a measure of how full, how absolutely un-negated the next world will be. Western commentators wonder how this mediaeval version of the world gains traction. The answer, of course, is that if you grow up in a cut-off public housing estate at the edge of a European city, among a people that don’t want you, with no prospect that the political-social structure will change, then you are living in the nothingness that the Salafists talk about. The IS version of the world is a more accurate portrayal of your current state than the liberal-democratic fairytale of the official Western media. Yet even this religious-terror movement, this push at violent “awakening”, retains a political character, focused on supporting the territorial caliphate IS has carved out of the remains of Syria and Iraq.

No, it is the spate of individual killings that have appeared in the past six months that have a truly, ugh, postmodern character to them. The phrase bandied around is “lone wolves”, which is useless: wolves have cunning and purpose. The solitary figures that have perpetrated haphazard attacks in Germany, the UK and France are all, or nearly all, of mixed European-Asian Muslim background, not necessarily from poor backgrounds, all with grievances other than Western-Middle East relations, all with a variety of online attachments — to anything from the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik to US alt-right white supremacism — other than IS, but coming to IS material through online connection.

Their actions are thus the occasion for unseemly culture wars about whether the crimes can be claimed on behalf of radical Islam or not. The answer would appear to be yes, and no. In a world in which individual identity is gained in adolescence less through affiliation to settled and stable groups — ethnic, national, religious, class — and increasingly put together from the diverse streams of the digital sphere, then the terrorism/crime, political/criminal division starts to break down altogether as an analytic tool.

[Rundle: the paralysing fear of Zaky Mallah’s hat]

The dividing line of modern organised terrorism, and postmodern hybrid terrorism/crime, runs through the global Islamic State movement, not around it. In turn, it may be catalysing a global wave of hybrid terror/crime/mentally disturbed violence, which has no Islamist connection, but which is inspired by the notion that violence guarantees a degree of meaning and purpose.

One key event in that respect may have been in Japan, where the lethal attack by a young man, Satoshi Uematsu, in a disabled care home left 19 dead. Japan had hitherto been held up as a place immune from the atrocious violence being visited on multicultural societies, due to its monocultural restrictions on immigration. But Uematsu’s attack had roots in Japanese fascist nationalism, with its race-purity obsessions; he believed himself to be performing an act of brutal and symbolic eugenics.

The pattern was the same as with atomised part-themed IS attacks in the West: a wayward and tormented consciousness attaching itself to a clear and simple cause. The person/subject of modernity who became a terrorist — someone psychologically bounded and defined, drawn from an oppressed (or self-defined oppressed) community — yields to the mentally disorganised subject. Their psychological boundaries are so fuzzy that they do not know where their selfhood begins, and the discourses of the innumerable media streams of the present day end. They are the very people that any efficient political terrorist movement of the 20th century would have rejected as entirely unsuitable for membership. They have now become the centre of the new terrorist threat.

The culture war right, desperate to portray these events as an Islamist intrusion into the otherwise peaceful West, will find themselves increasingly divergent from police and security services (if the latter are efficient), who will be looking in places other than organised political-religious groupings for possible sources of violence. This is one reason why we should be pushing back against the use of the term “terrorist” — for gangster murders or domestic violence killings, for example — because all this does is further license the blurring of lines between civilian police forces, and quasi-military security agencies.

Instead, we should assess these “lone wolves” as “hybrid killers”, taking on political-religious themes as an answer to their fractured subjectivities (which often arise from wider political conditions — being relentlessly bullied or teased as a teenager, etc, cannot not have an effect; nor can the feeling that violence is abroad in your homelands ), and save the “terrorist” label for the explicit application of terror as a political weapon.

Violence is terrifying; terrorism is the explicit application of such terror, usually to project a power beyond one’s actual force. We should recognise that labelling every political-part-themed attack as such is simply a way of seeking to understand the world through the filter of the 20th century, which offers a more predictable and secure capacity for threat assessment. Guarding such civil liberties, as remain, will depend on insisting that surveillance and state control be targeted where it is demonstrably likely to prevent violence — not by defining all violent acts as “terrorism” and seeking to overturn the civilian/military distinction in policing altogether.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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