Humanities Discussion Series. What is ‘Terror’?

Written on December 1, 2014 by Fernando Dameto Zaforteza in IE Humanities Center, IE University

Madrid Humanities Discussion Seriesburning_car
Thursday, December 4, 19-21
The Student Hub

The words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorist’ are some of the most potent in today’s political vocabulary, but they are also the most ill-defined.  When someone is referred to as a terrorist, the expected emotional response is clear enough: terror does not recognize humanity; the terrorists are inhuman and represent the other of all mutual political discussion, deliberation and participation.  But, the attempts to actually define what constitutes ‘terror’ and who the ‘terrorists’ are almost always make it more difficult to sustain this expected emotional response.  For instance, ‘terrorism’ is often understood to refer to ‘un-authorized or un-official uses of violence to achieve political ends’.  But, with this definition, it is easy to see how one person’s ‘terrorist’ can become another’s ‘liberation fighter’.  In fact, the politically motivated terrorists of the 1960’s and 1970’s, as in the case of ETA in Spain or the RAF in Germany, often sported a Marxist liturgy and attacked in a specific and non-random manner to suggest to the whole world that justice was on their side.   However, the more visible religiously based terror of the last decades seems rather different, maybe more like all the school-shootings that also emerged in this period.  The religious justification and violence seems more about the display of righteous anger than an attempt to convince anyone.  So, should we put ETA, the RAF and religious terrorists (not to mention young teenagers shooting up schools) all in the same group?  And, how should we and our governments react to ‘terror’ and ‘terrorists’?  Should we ever talk to them, make deals with them, pay ransoms?  Or, does their alleged incapacity to recognize our humanity mean that we don’t have to recognize theirs, that we can put them outside the realm of the law, deal with them as we see fit?  All of which raises the question whether the response to the idea of ‘terror’ can remake us in the image of those we say we are fighting…is there such a thing as ‘state terror’?  The word ‘terror’ tends usually to elicit a basic, unthinking fear response, reflected in the color-coded ‘threat levels’ to which we are now exposed.  In this discussion, we want to turn the tables and ask what ‘terror’ is and what the right response is for us as persons and citizens to phenomena categorized in this way.


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