How Terrorism Helps the State

Here’s a game-theory piece in The Guardian on the strategy of terrorism: “the theatre of terror”. The premise is that terrorism only works in the modern era because States derive legitimacy from the promise of keeping all of their subjects (and indeed their adherents abroad) safe from political violence. Of course keeping everyone safe is impossible, so when a few extremists kill some citizens in a public spectacle, the house of cards is exposed for what it really is.

The author of the piece writes:

Terrorists undertake an impossible mission: to change the political balance of power when they have almost no military abilities. To achieve their aim, they present the state with an impossible challenge of its own: to prove that it can protect all its citizens from political violence, anywhere, anytime. The terrorists hope that when the state tries to fulfill this impossible mission, it will reshuffle the political cards, and hand them some unforeseen ace.

It’s probably true that terrorists hope for an overreaction to their provocations, but I don’t think that States use so much force to crush terrorist organizations simply to keep up the charade of political parenthood. Since States are really better described as almost all-powerful military/corporate juntas—terrorist organizations of their own, really—whose main goal is ultimately either resource extraction or resource destruction, they don’t have much to fear from any citizenry, even one that knows that the State’s promise of safety is bullshit.

Ask yourself if the average American thinks the political system in this country is functioning at all, let alone well, or if she thinks the government has our best interest at heart. And yet, the State is more “legitimate” than ever. Paradoxically, each continual (and inevitable) display of the State’s ineptitude only increases its stability.

I mean, BP can kill every dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico with relative impunity. And is any Wall Street banker, following the farce of the 2008 economic collapse, really worried about public opinion? The whole notion of States worrying about their image is doubly false: States don’t act as monolithic structures (what is “France,” exactly?), and they certainly don’t worry about anything, other than concentrating their own wealth and power.

In fact, for many oligarchies, terrorism is a welcome reminder of the need to pledge subservience to a technocratic, authoritative elite (as each CEO raises his hand: “pick mine! pick mine!”), much like the Republicans need the Democrats to remind people of all the scary things that await them if they don’t vote for a strong “defense” (see: the “wolf at the gate” political ads from a few years ago). And of course, the War On Terror is a wonderful business opportunity, so it’s a win-win.

Look at this paragraph from the aforementioned article:

Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theatre producers and less like army generals. Above all, if we want to fight terrorism effectively we must realise that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to terrorist provocations.

Notice how, even as the author exposes the sham of State sanctity, writes “if we want to fight terrorism,” and “nothing the terrorists do can defeat us.” Who’s “we”? Who’s “us”? Apparently I need to stop overacting to terrorism in misguided way, lest I only defeat myself. But the last time I checked, I don’t have any army. I don’t have a global surveillance apparatus at my command. I don’t control satellites or destroyers, or even the “democratic” internet. And therein lies the beauty of terrorism for the ruling elites: as with everything else, they use it to privatize the rewards while externalizing (and making public) the risk. I didn’t get to decide whether or not to invade Iraq, but I sure as hell get to worry about the blowback. I didn’t get to decide whether or not to allow banks to fabricate money out of thin air (let alone to gamble with it), but I sure as hell get to suffer all the very-much foreseen consequences.


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