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A New Definition Of "Terrorist" III: The Manipulator Of Uncertainty

Jun 24, 2009
The use of uncertainty as a weapon is a defining characteristic of "terrorist"; terrorism does not exist without it.

By wielding uncertainty, the terrorist announces what for him is the worst thing possible, the ultimate hell. In this way, he is different from the French Resistance member for whom uncertainty had no special value as a thing in itself and who had precise intentions.

In its broadest sense, terrorism can be defined as the manipulation of uncertainty. One need not travel to Baghdad or Bali, Peru or Pakistan to find terrorism in this, its most rudimentary form. Dr. Richard McCleery concluded in a 1957 penology study of Hawaii's Oahu Prison:

"Control, rather than 'justice' in the familiar sense, was the object. Hence, there was no place for a body of principles or 'constitutional' rights to restrain disciplinary procedure. Secret accusation was the rule, and the accused had no notice, hearing, counsel or appeal. The resulting atmosphere of 'terror,' produced as much by secrecy as by the actual use of informers, was vital to formal control and a key to values and social structures in inmate society. All governments use exemplary punishment. Uncertainty, rather than force, is the heart of 'terror' as a political instrument in any authoritarian system."*

As the hallmark of ambiguity, uncertainty exists in infinite forms, and it is that infinity which gives uncertainty its primordial affinity with both terror and terrorism. The latter two phenomena are similar but not identical. In January 1989, I had the unfortunate occasion to experience both in less than a week...

I was traveling through Latin America, writing columns for the El Paso Times. While on the top floor of a hotel in Santiago de Chile, a major earthquake occurred. The entire building seemed to slosh around in an unseen, unfathomable sea.

The worst part of an earthquake is not the actual shaking, however; it is the fact that you have no idea (i) when the earthquake will end, and (ii) if it will grow worse. Uncertainty and terror in their purest form are experienced during natural disasters -- tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes, tornadoes. In them, the event is the event.

Is being terrified the same thing as being terrorized? Again, the two are close. However, to be terrorized -- to be the victim of man-made uncertainty -- is different because it does not end.

Before arriving in Chile, I was in El Salvador where a guerrilla war was raging. I no sooner stepped inside the airport terminal than the lights went out. Silence. Nervous coughing, shuffling. Absolute darkness. Waiting. Waiting... Temperature rising. The line was long, sticky. Suddenly, the lights came on. Was it or was it not a simple power outage, as the authorities announced?

The subsequent long drive at night from the airport into San Salvador is spooky by any standard, more so when you see bodies on the side of the road. "Peasants try to run across the highway," the taxi driver explained, "It's dark. Sometimes they don't make it." Was it that? Was it something else?

At the Camino Real Hotel, there was a knock on the door. A man dressed as a waiter said he "needed" to put up Christmas decorations. He kept his right hand behind him. Was it decorations? Was it something else?

So it went during my entire stay. Absolutely nothing happened -- which makes my point. In the absolute uncertainty wielded by terrorists, the non-event is the event.

To wield uncertainty as a weapon is the definitive characteristic of totalitarian regimes and movements; it is what enables them to be "total"-itarian in the first place. That the tactic of manipulating extreme uncertainty would occur to someone indicates that extreme uncertainty is already present in his life. In that regard, it is no accident or coincidence that middle class rebels are the backbone of totalitarian regimes and movements; being middle class, ambiguity -- uncertainty -- is in their marrow.

In terrorism, the universe of the unlikely, which by definition has no limits, seems likely. Naked "might" -- its dual meaning of "power" and "possibility" inextricably mixed, fused -- controls everything as far as the eye can see. Even farther.

By manipulating uncertainty, the terrorist magnifies his presence to become a total presence comparable to that of a context, a background, a music key, an absent host. In the process, he challenges an age-old adage: he can be present (or "have a presence") in two places at once; indeed, in more than two places -- in fact, everywhere.

To be everywhere, however, requires uncertainty to be total. Like pregnancy, absolute uncertainty is a yes-or-no proposition; there is no "little bit" possible. If uncertainty is to be total, no corner can escape it.

It is the need for total uncertainty that explains why Islamist terrorists commit what is otherwise an incomprehensible act: they kill fellow Islamists by the thousands. For if someone could escape danger by simply being an Islamist, then the absolute uncertainty manipulated by the terrorist would no longer be absolute; it would have limits and consequently, no longer exist.

A total presence is of course impossible, especially for a small group. In order to achieve something resembling ubiquity, the active participation of the authorities is required. The silly searches performed at public events and backwater airports are a case in point.

At the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, I watched two policemen rifle through purses and parcels and run a metal detector over each fan entering a cordoned-off area where they could ogle movie stars ascending the iconic, red-carpeted steps.

"Look at that," the woman beside me sputtered, pointing at the police, "their searches don't do a damn thing. Anybody who is halfway serious can get a bomb or a gun past those guys. It's only meant for us, the public. Pur cinema!"

Indeed, the contagion of uncertainty, which had not existed a moment earlier, was activated and radiated by the police. In a thousand ways, day in and day out, and in thousands of places around the world, the authorities -- we, too, all of us -- carry the terrorists' dirty water for them.

Omnipresence is just one step away from omniscience. Only one thing is omniscient: God.

There is nothing unexpected or unusual about the terrorist's drive for omniscience: a magnified middle class rebel, he is already inflated.


*Dr. Richard H. McCleery, "Policy Change in Prison Management," Governmental Research Bureau, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 1957, p. 15.
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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