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Danger of False Clarities

There is no global process called "terrorism": each armed group with its own strategies and recourses to violence must be understood in a given context rather than as a feature of an elusive "terrorism". The domain of realpolitik where language is a weapon must be separated from the domain of research where language itself is the object of scrutiny.

Lattar from South Asia

Danger of False Clarities

Scrutiny of ‘Terrorism’ in Sri Lanka

There is no global process called “terrorism”: each armed group with its own strategies and recourses to violence must be understood in a given context rather than as a feature of an elusive “terrorism”. The domain of realpolitik where language is a weapon must be separated from the domain of research where language itself is the object of scrutiny.


hen an act of terrible violence happens, at first there seems to be no plot, no narrative, only traces which lead nowhere. Rather than attempt to piece together the puzzle it is easier and more reassuring to speak of “terrorism” to qualify particular violent acts. The charred remains of the body of a possibly pregnant suicide bomber who blew herself up in front of army commander Sarath Fonseka at the army headquarters in Colombo suffered a second defacement through the popular act of naming her a terrorist, erasing her true identity, nullifying her existence as irrelevant. Everything was crystal clear now: she was nothing less and nothing more than a human bomb launched against the Sri Lankan state.

A few days later reacting to the retaliation by the airforce that followed the attack on the army headquarters a Tamil National Alliance MP spoke in parliament of “state terror and genocide”. In other times and other places, during the carpet bombing of Vietnam by the American forces or during the liberation of Iraq – a process that inadvertently and surgically “freed” many civilians from a life of misery under Saddam Hussein – the term used by the perpetrators to describe the casualties of war was “collateral damage”.

Even more recently the police reported that according to investigations, unidentified armed men had stormed a house at Allaipiddy in the islet of Kayts in northern Sri Lanka and opened fire at the persons inside after throwing grenades, killing at least nine, including two children (Daily Mirror, May 15, 2006). How should scholars come to terms with these acts of violence?

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The point is not to deny or condone acts of violence perpetrated against civilians by armed groups or states but to understand that no intellectual ground can be covered by enquiries which foreground that the sign “terrorism” has no origin, no historical, cultural or linguistic limit. By accepting the concept of terrorism as one good to think with, social scientists have fallen prey once again to a type of analysis that encompasses the world at large through vague, sweeping and ahistorical concepts. My aim here is not to argue about what states, governments and diplomats ought to do but to suggest an alternative intellectual strategy or way of writing and thinking about armed violence to members of my own tribe – scholars and writers. It is about what intellectual strategy is best in my view to address the phenomenon of violence wilfully perpetrated against civilians for political aims. The case I wish to make is that the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist” (if used to qualify a group of persons rather than a particular act) is best left to state and non-state actors fighting the propaganda war on the stage set for an audience of global and regional powers, donors and international NGOs. For the rest of us “terrorist” is best used to qualify acts rather than persons.

Terrorism as a modern concept acquired a paradigmatic status in the late 1980s.

The moment is important, when our very modernity or hypermodernity produced a specific type of violence the special effects of which –“terrorism” – were thought to be an integral part. Terrorism entered the discourses of states, infiltrated constitutions, spawned special regulations and imposed itself as a dominant prism through which the people were invited to read their world. People became then captive in a language trap when they accepted the legitimacy of terror, terrorism, terrorist, words that in reality mask rather than unveil what they try to describe, and “provide an alias for what remains hidden” to borrow de Certeau’s expression.

There was of course no universalised conception of terrorism. While states in south Asia gleefully adopted variations of the hegemonic US state department discourse, non-state organisations and actors displayed scepticism if not downright opposition to the very framing of armed movements in terms of terrorism. There is no doubt, however, that it is the western world that invented the word, the techniques and the politics of terrorism. The most commonly accepted definition by states and defence institutions is indeed that of the US department of defence, namely:

the unlawful use of, or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property to coerce and intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives.

In this type of definition terrorism stripped of any historical or cultural moorings acquired a purely functionalist meaning. In the Sri Lankan press one reads frequently sentences such as “…in the south (of SL) where terrorism has killed civilians indiscriminately and without regard to their ethnicity”. What then is this terrorism that kills, is it the same as the “terrorism” that kills in Iraq, the terrorism that kills in Israel…This empty term means nothing, it has become a slogan, a word that has no significance except in the sentiment of fear and hatred that the act of uttering it produces. It is a word that assaults us when we are fingerprinted

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006 to obtain a visa and which travels with us when we board a plane amidst tight security. It resembles those other words, globalisation or neo-liberalism that come so easily when one is looking for someone or something responsible for laying off factory workers or shutting down a mine.

The acts of violence perpetrated against civilian targets by such organisations as Al Qaida have led to the coining of the label “new terrorism” to describe what some analysts see as a totally new phenomenon, encapsulated in the term “global terrorism”. A leading scholar building on the theory of new wars, analysed the main features of the “new forms of terrorism of today”, taking a number of armed groups as examples. Together with the epitomic Al Qaida were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sikh movement for Khalistan. What is inferred is that there is a global process described as new terrorism that seems to be present in all continents and displays common features among which are an opposition to modernity… In spite of family resemblances the model does not always fit. Is not the LTTE in many ways the epitome of modernity in its quest for an age-old state sovereignty? There is no global process called “terrorism”: each armed group with its own strategies and recourses to violence must be understood in a given context rather than as a feature of an elusive “terrorism”.

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Not using the term terrorist to qualify an act of violence against civilians is just as questionable. The foreign media reporting on Sri Lankan events often omits to use terror, terrorism or terrorist when referring to acts perpetrated against the state, its institutions or its armed forces that have led to the killing of civilians as well. Reports by international NGOs such as Amnesty International tend to prefer neutral terms such as human rights abuses when describing the violence perpetrated by the LTTE against Sinhalese civilians in Colombo and border villages in 1999. In this sense the independent review commissioned by the BBC’s governing board that suggested that the BBC should be less cautious over its use of the term “terrorism” because “that is the most accurate expression for actions which involve violence against randomly selected civilians” (The Sunday Times, May 14, 2006, p 15) makes an important point but fails to differentiate between the implications of using the term “terrorism” and “terrorist”.

That parties to the conflict find it useful to throw accusations of being terrorists whether representing a terrorist state or terrorist organisation at each other is understandable, part and parcel of the war fought to convince the public and international opinion of the vileness of the “other”. Less understandable is the manner in which serious scholars in the west and in south Asia have happily adopted the same semantic framework.

The US state department currently reports that more than 60 active terrorist groups exist and that over one-third of them have the capacity for global reach. The state department’s list of foreign terrorist organisations is interesting as it includes only organisations which according to the legal criteria for designation (reflecting amendments to Section 219 of the INA in the USA Patriot Act of 2001) “threaten the security of US nationals or the national security (national defence, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the US”. Among them is the LTTE.

That the LTTE has committed violent acts leading to the death of civilians cannot be denied. Whether or not it should be listed as a “terrorist organisation” is not within my remit to assess. What I question is the use by scholars of a list of armed groups made in US – for the purpose of statecraft – as the basis of an intellectual/ academic exercise. The two domains must be separated: the first domain is one of realpolitik where language is a weapon; the second is one of research, where language itself is an object of scrutiny. Recently a local newspaper carried a news item where the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism sponsored by the US department of homeland security designated the Sihala Urumaya, the precursor of the Jathika Hela Urumaya – a party mainly constituted by Buddhist bhikkus as a “terrorist organisation” for allegedly having participated in 2003 in an attack on a Sinhala and Tamil cultural event at the New Town Hall. This completely erroneous depiction of an event that sufficed to include the Sihala Urumaya in a seemingly official and trustworthy list of terrorist organisations shows the danger for the scholar to accept these classifications as a given. It is therefore important for her to unthink the process of naming and defining by asking first who names and defines and for what purpose. It is crucial that intellectuals at the very outset engage in a process of dissection of the way states, non-state and the media opt to use or not to use a given term.

What then is the option for scholars in search of a language to think with? Social scientists are generally reluctant to use the term “terrorists” to qualify armed groups that engage in violent acts against the state for political aims. Scholars in the fields of international relations and strategic studies have less qualms echoing the classifications of the US state department and European powers.

I would advocate the abandonment of the terms of “terrorism” and “terrorist group” whilst allowing the use of the adjective terrorist to qualify acts that lead to the wilful killing of civilian targets. Thus an armed group could commit at some point in its life a “terrorist act”. In the same way the acts of states during wars where civilians are intimidated or slain by regular armies can also be described as “terrorist acts”. The essence of the armed group or movement or state escapes being condensed into being terrorist by its very nature.

There is a need to critically examine the way issues are framed in the public discourse, why certain issues are prioritised while others are ignored, and which concepts are more likely to become obstacles to our understanding than tools of knowledge. Through the artifice of naming/denouncing certain groups as “terrorist”, some scholarly works cast an essentialising and ahistorical gaze on armed movements. Many commentators, generalists as well as terrorism experts who have, together with conflict resolution experts, suddenly appeared on the scene, armed with ready-made knowledge and solutions – have completely internalised these procedures without questioning their consequences. Once a group has been cast as a terrorist group there is no possible understanding, except in terms of how to find the antidote for a venom. We need instead to accept the significance of language in framing practice and history.



Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

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