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A New Definition Of "Terrorist" IV: The Act Of Killing, Summary And Conclusion

Jun 24, 2009
Terrorists are not common criminals.

To be a criminal requires a conscious decision to be a criminal. The terrorist makes a decision, but not that particular decision.

Terrorists are not freedom fighters.

Unlike the terrorist, the French Resistance fighter retained in consciousness the ambiguity of his high intentions and illegal acts; he continued to judge, to decide. Also, unlike the terrorist, the resistance fighter does not deny or explain away; he owns who he is and what he is doing. He doubts; therefore, he thinks.

Finally, unlike the terrorist, the freedom fighter does not wield absolute uncertainty as a weapon.

Another crucial element in our definition: a terrorist does something. An act takes place.

The 100% armchair terrorist does not exist, just as the entirely subjective criminal does not exist. By itself, a decision is necessary but not sufficient for the criminal and the terrorist to be what they are. There must be not only motive but also opportunity.

At the opposite pole, a terrorist is not anybody who commits an act of terrorism. To repeat, at the most basic level, the terrorist (1) makes a decision and (2) does something. Because he has not made a decision, a truck driver who unknowingly transports a bomb that is detonated by remote control, killing hundreds of people, is neither a terrorist nor a criminal, but a normal person who has, due to circumstances and perhaps even against his will, committed a criminal act.

We come to the nature of the act committed.

For the criminal and the resistance fighter, the act may or may not involve violence or killing. In particular, there is no indication that killing held a special value in and of itself for French Resistance members. For the terrorist, on the contrary, the act he commits almost always involves violence and usually killing. Why?

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, professor of military science, observed that killing has become the "ultimate taboo."(1) He made a strong case for his counter-intuitive conclusion that "despite an unbroken tradition of violence and war, man is not by nature a killer."(2)

Given that surprising fact, it is not surprising that terrorists would be drawn to killing as a primordial rite of passage.(3) The ambivalent emotions on which all taboos are based are at their pinnacle in killing, the ultimate taboo. And it is their own ambivalent emotions that middle class rebels in general and terrorists in particular are striving to overcome.

It is here, perhaps, that much of the mystery of the suicide bombers is solved:

Ambivalent emotions for them, too, are at their peak in killing. Those emotions and the ambiguity creating them are what the bombers fear most and are most incapable of coping with -- what spur them on -- forming the very thing they feel they MUST overcome. That is why literally and figuratively, the suicide bomber...blows himself up.

Otherwise stated, the suicide bomber must already be blown up (inflated psychologically) in order to blow himself up (materially). For countless terrorists, there is no other outcome, and it makes perfect sense.

The following two paragraphs sum up our definition:

A "terrorist" is usually a middle class rebel (1) experiencing magnified marginal or transitional conditions, who (2) voluntarily (3) goes through certain rites of passage, among which are (4) clique membership and (5) a deliberate decision to commit a criminal act that is almost always (6) violent and most often (7) murder, in (8) the name of higher intentions or convictions without (9) retaining consciously the ambiguity of his criminal act and his higher intentions/convictions.

He expresses powerful, unconscious, ambivalent emotions in two ways: (10) converting his intentions and convictions into "idees fixes" or absolute truths, the opposite extreme from ambiguity, and (11) wielding uncertainty as a weapon. That uncertainty is total, as shown by the fact that (12) everyone -- allies, non-combatants, even himself -- is a potential victim.

A concluding note: it is the syndrome, the running together of components, which counts -- not specific components taken in isolation.

By not admitting what he CANNOT admit, the terrorist guards his secret, even from himself.

By not admitting what he is, the terrorist shows the gravity that admission holds for him. To my knowledge, no terrorist or other middle class rebel has ever said what he is.

What he is, is the secret he keeps: he is a middle class rebel.

If the ultimate motive of a terrorist is not political or religious, what is it?

As mentioned, it is relief from ambiguity, from ambivalent emotions. Ambiguity is his lot because ANY "middle class" position, status, or condition -- of which the socio-economic middle class is the largest but by no means the only example -- is inherently transitional, marginal, i.e., ambiguous.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas identified why an intermediary/transitional/marginal position can give birth to terrorism:

"Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is indefinable. The person who must pass from one to another is himself in danger and emanates danger to others."(4)

Understanding and moderating certain intermediary, transitional, and marginal conditions, as well as the ambivalent emotions those conditions create, is ultimately where the secret to defeating terrorism lies.

Tragically, existing policies and perspectives concerning the most important of those conditions, the socio-economic middle class, as well as that class's real-life future prospects, give little reason for optimism.


(1)Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, "On Killing," Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1996, p. 279.
(2)Ibid., p. xiv.
(3) A chilling, realistic example is portrayed in Gillo Pontecorvos' 1966 movie, "The Battle of Algiers."
(4)Mary Douglas, "Purity and Danger," Routledge, London, England, 1996, p. 97.
About the Author
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a political consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. He worked for all levels of government, and for all three branches. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science.

He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion" atBooklocker, Amazon , andBarnes and Noble.
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