Terrorism : The problem and punditry | Sunday Observer

Terrorism : The problem and punditry

2 June, 2019

The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. The term ‘international terrorism’ means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country. The term ‘terrorist group’ means any group practising, or that has significant subgroups that practise, international terrorism (US Federal Law Code, Title 22)

Easter Sunday turned on a master switch. Old fears returned to center stage. Terrorism, what it means, what it portends dominates the national psyche.

There has emerged a demand for the total securitization of the State, by entrusting the business of running the Republic to ‘You know who?’

It explains how and why Vimal Weerawansa the fastidious ultra-Sinhala nationalist partial to ‘Burberry’ and ‘Tommy Hilfiger’ attire has become a national security expert.

To me he and his coterie are the quintessential extremists. They are vociferously vocal and assiduously active in challenging our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

He wants the select committee probe halted forthwith. He does not want the failure probed because it will prevent future failures! As an eminent academic pointed out to me the Sinhala term “Budhdhi Angsha” is an oxymoron- it meant different things to different people.

I am no intelligence expert. But even with a superficial acquaintance with the vast literature available, it can be surmised that fighting modern terrorism demands painstaking research and a predictive logic beyond the inherent capacity of the average rabble rouser. And it is they who have commandeered the wheel at this critical time.

We all know about the Russian psychologist Pavlov and his dogs. His pioneering discovery was that dogs could learn to associate the sound of a bell with a meal. When Pavlov sounded the bell, his dogs began to drool. The experiment led to the discovery of a profound truth about the human mind. Extremely strong associations could be formed between events.

Post Easter Sunday events demonstrate how the idea of ‘Terrorism’ can spark a motivating fear igniting mass hysteria. The process affects us all.

Can the terrorist deliver a message? Does the terrorist succeed in registering the message with the intended target? Have the Easter Sunday terrorists succeeded in influencing their audience?

The following passage is an extract from last Sunday’s ‘political commentary ‘in the Sunday Times. The column is widely respected and avidly read by the cognoscenti and the ordinary alike. The columnist has justifiably earned the repute of an authoritative commentator on defence and national security issues.

“Retaliatory attacks from local extremists, avenging attacks on the ISIS in Syria by US trained Syrian forces, led to the Easter Sunday massacre – one of the worst in the country.

Not having stopped at the ACSA, the US was pushing for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). All to combat terrorism, a phenomenon the US’s own actions elsewhere have caused.

Though he faltered on entering into ACSA and its adverse impact on Sri Lanka, with the country becoming a breeding ground for Muslim extremists, President Sirisena should still be commended for being wise this time.”

The respected commentator arrives at two startlingly significant certitudes, related to the terror inflicted on Easter Sunday.

A. Easter Sunday carnage is a retaliatory attack by local extremists avenging attacks on the ISIS by US trained Syrian forces.

B. The President by not agreeing to a ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA) with the USA has prevented Sri Lanka from turning into a breeding ground for Muslim extremists.

Interrogating the two propositions is not the purpose of this essay. But the suggested possibility of Sri Lanka turning into a possible breeding ground for Muslim extremists is worrying. It is a subject for another essay on another day.

What we confront today is International Jihadist terrorism. What we defeated in 2009 was a political struggle. It was domestic in scope and composition. It was rooted in ‘a singular idiosyncratic local situation’.

That explains why the end of war has not resolved the causes of the conflict. Why we are a nation at peace with victors and vanquished separated by bitterness.

Terrorism that hit us on Easter Sunday is a new ball game. It has put Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa in the same league as New York, Paris. London and Madrid.

The quoted passage from the Sunday Times Political Commentary needs to be seen, severed and studied in this context.

What the Sunday Times Political Columnist has done has a theoretical excellence of its own. The carnage of Easter Sunday is the politicization of an idea- the necessity of resisting US hegemony. Fighting the enemy that prevents the resurrection of the Arab Islamic caliphate.

It debunks common frame of reference that ‘terrorists’ are pathological perpetrators of mindless evil that defies comprehension by rational minds. These guys have a purpose.

How they found the fanatics in a distant land is not the question. The issue is they have found the land. Unless and until we get hold of their compass, we will not know how they got here or how long they intend to stay here.

How should we respond? Do we prevent the breeding of terrorists by not signing the SOFA with the US? Ignorance is bold, and knowledge is reserved” said Thucydides. We are indeed in Thucydides trap- what Henry Kissinger called the cardinal challenge to world order. No pun intended.

We don’t allow his Holiness the Dalai Lama to worship at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Yet, we readily escort Prince Charles to the holy of holies to offer a tray of jasmines.

Are we to frame the fight against the new terrorism of Islamic fundamentalism on the same principle of realpolitik that denies the Dalai Lama the privilege that is readily conceded to the heir to the crown of our former queen who we jettisoned only in 1972?

Since the carnage of Easter Sunday, we have been lectured on the subject by many Terrorism pundits.

The platitudes on terrorism delivered are incredulous competition for polish with the sheen of the pundit’s baldpate.

Since 2009, with fanatical tenacity we hold on to an imagined truth- that we defeated the world’s most vicious terrorist organization. The natural corollary to that, is that it required the construction of a surveillance state that has no other parallel.

The post Easter Sunday national introspection is devastatingly dumb. It is appealingly alluring to those yearning for a ‘Tribal Chief’ who would herd us all into a chauvinist stockade.

Dismantling of the disciplined dystopia managed with precision by Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seen as the primary cause for the recent carnage.

One result of the thirty-year war is that we have no shortage of terrorism experts.

Priests, Prelates and Preachers flaunt their in-depth mastery of the topic. Some of them are wax eloquent on the mechanics of moles implanted in suspected terrorist outfits.

Ultra nationalist demagogues insist on their matchless expertise in the fine art of intelligence gathering through clandestine operatives.

We have Television anchors and self-proclaimed perception managers who can split, segment and sub divide ‘terrorism’ we fought successfully and locate the challenges presented by the new terrorism manifested on Easter Sunday.

Governments and academic analysts had no agreed definition on ‘Terrorism’ until Jihadist terror hit global capitals.

Most self-styled Terrorism experts ignore or gloss over the essential truth that terrorism is a problem with history. The history matters for the way we think about it and our efforts to work out possible remedies.

Dismissing the terrorist as a mindless psychopath is not the answer. Preempting terror attacks is necessary but offers no long-term solution.

In a path breaking study “Disciplining Terror – How experts invented Terrorism” Ms.Lisa Stampnizky of the University of Sheffield makes a case for introducing a new discipline on Terrorism studies that combines several disciplines.

Rather than trying to determine the one true meaning of ‘Terrorism’ she examines how ‘terrorism’ is socially constructed. She says, “when the phenomenon of terrorism is socially constructed it unveils and removes the mask showing the true face underneath that causes it to lose its power over us.”

That requires us to recruit and train sociologists and social anthropologists as counter terrorism experts.

‘Buildings are constructions. Analyzing how they are constructed is the only way we can understand how they were put together. In the social world, this means asking how problems, concepts and institutions came to be, how they become so powerful.’

She points out that terrorism covers several disciplines and asks, how anyone with unbiased knowledge of the topic can self-proclaim as an expert. There is no licensing body to certify terrorism experts. There is no agreement among terrorism experts about what constitutes useful knowledge on ‘terrorism’.

There are no benchmarks to determine who may be regarded as an expert. The “key audience for terrorism expertise is not an ideal-typical scientific community of other terrorism experts. It is the public and the confused state.” ‘Terrorism’ must be understood as operating at the contested boundary between politics and science, between the 1972 Munich attacks, broadcast live, that brought terrorism to the fore as a political weapon.

A mindset that terrorists acted irrationally and pathologically emerged, ignoring underlying reasons for their actions.

If terrorism is seen as a means to an end by its perpetrators, its objectives must be understood in a larger political and social context.

Unfolding events should not surprise us. As Philosopher and Social Theorist Michael Foucault neatly encapsulated how a given society functions in adversity “Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what ‘what they do’ does.”