Terrorism, a new category wedged between war and peace

We know that there’s war, and that there’s peace—but not that there’s something in between. Yet, the terrorists of the Paris attacks have added a new category to our notion of violence. A commentary by the political scientist Herfried Münkler.

Our understanding of the political order has one category for peace, and one for war—but not a third category for anything in between. That this is so is not a mere coincidence, or fate, but results from our countries’ political tradition that favors binary thinking based on the law of excluded middle, tertium non datur. Contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke referred to the state in which peace and war were not yet clearly distinguished from each other as the “state of nature.” Invariably, this state also meant that one had no way of knowing whether one was at war or at peace with a person one encountered, meaning one had to be on guard and be prepared at all times. According to Hobbes, this state of nature is one of war more so than of peace. Locke, for his part, was more cautious, and saw war to prevail primarily under conditions of unbridled competition.

Both agreed, of course, that it would be rational and therefore opportune for people to leave this state of ambiguity and uncertainty, and to enter into a contract that would establish clarity. It is this contract that formed the system and order of nation states—who were henceforth the guardians of war and peace.

Crime or act of war

Transnational terrorism is the return of this “third other” that had been erased in the course of nation-state building. In principle, “classical” types of terrorism, regardless of whether they had a social or national revolutionary focus, also tried to reintroduce this third component into the political arena. However, only the transnational terrorism of Al Qaida or, more recently, the Islamic State have succeeded in doing so. It follows that the politicians of a country attacked by terrorists need to decide whether they consider the attack to be a criminal act or an act of war. Indeed, this is the key strategic challenge posed by terrorists. It forces politicians to engage in the dicey game of interpreting what terrorist attacks really are: a crime to be investigated and handled by the police and the justice system; or an act of war that must be countered with, also and especially, military means? In Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the German government consistently favored the crime paradigm over any war rhetoric—much to the displeasure of the RAF terrorists and their supporters, who would have been all too happy if their violence had been interpreted as political acts of war. French President Hollande, by contrast, took the opposite route in that he spoke of a declaration of war of ISIL against France, and by responding to the terrorist attacks with the command to conduct airstrikes on ISIL positions in Syria.

Manifestations of terrorism

When comparing these different reactions to terrorism by Germany and France, national mood certainly plays a role, and the fact that Hollande, considered to be a weak and hesitant president, possibly felt a greater need to demonstrate determination than his counterpart, the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. However, above and beyond these aspects, there are important differences between the targets and the execution of classical terrorist attacks and those of the more recent form of transnational terrorism. Classical terrorist groups, from the RAF to the IRA, focused on attacking the political and social elite, or the state security apparatus. However, they generally made efforts to spare the general population from the violence, regarding it in fact as a party they hoped to enlist for their cause.

For this reason, the attacks had to be more carefully planned and carried out, which resulted in a limitation of these groups’ capacity to cause harm. That limitation was clearly not the case with the November 2015 attacks in Paris, where the perpetrators indiscriminately killed anyone who happened to be in front of their Kalashnikovs or in the target range of their bombs and explosives. The attack was directed against anyone and everyone, a circumstance that made it virtually impossible to treat it as a mere criminal act. The pressure was thus on to treat it as an “act of war.”

Delimiting ​​ISIL territories

However, the fact remains that a “war on terror” is difficult to perform. It requires identifying a country or an area occupied by a dense hub of actors of the terrorist groups in order to be able to respond with military means. After September 11, 2001, that was Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda had found shelter; and now these areas are Syria and northern Iraq, where ISIL is the de facto ruler. Al Qaeda was quickly driven out of Afghanistan, and it is quite possible that the caliphate state of ISIL will likewise collapse under the recently significantly intensified airstrikes from Western, Arab and Russian aircraft. However, this will not bring an end to the terrorist threat to our societies; network organizations will invariably remain who will continue to plot and carry out their deadly attacks from underbelly of the social space. In other words, military might may defeat a manifestation of terrorism, but it cannot eliminate terrorism.

Pressure to interpret, pressure to decide

It follows that the disambiguation of the third party between war and peace—the role assumed by transnational terrorism—according to the war paradigm may well be misleading. This is not to say that a type of disambiguation that would term the state of affairs as a continuation of peace, one in which criminals act, would serve us better. Perhaps, a wise politician would put the desire for disambiguation on hold for an indeterminate amount of time—the time it takes to home in on this third target. In this way, he or she will have the most options, strategically and tactically. However, this course may prove difficult to bear for the population of a country attacked by terrorists. Presumably, the population at large needs to know “where they’re at” and will insist on a binary order of war and peace. The argument could thus be made that the crux of the challenge of terrorism lies in the pressure it puts on politicians, and populations, to interpret and make decisions with regard to terrorist acts of violence.

This commentary is a translation of the article “Terrorismus als ein Drittes zwischen Krieg und Frieden

Translation by Cathleen Poehler