Does Making a Tautology out of Violence do a Violence to Tautology?

by zunguzungu

In listening to Michael Krasny’s “Forum” today, I was struck by the fact that animal liberation firebombers are being called “domestic terrorists.” It’s an interesting gesture. In the most banal sense, of course, using bombs to intimidate your political opponents is terrorism, if anything is, but the very banality of that fact begs the question of why it’s necessary to brand them as such. Isn’t firebombing someone’s office worth unnacceptable enough on the face of it to prosecute it simply as an act of murderous violence? What is achieved by calling it “terrorism”? The modifier “domestic,” too, is interesting, since if the distinction between foreign and domestic terrorism is worth making, it must signify something. Is the act of bombing a public place to protest the exploitation of animals better or worse than bombing a public place to protest, say, the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia? From the perspective of the person being blown up, I’m not sure how you would answer that question.

So it occurs to me that this is precisely not what is at stake. Instead, the problem of nomenclature is one of distinguishing between different motives for political violence. And this is what makes “terrorism” what it is, right? If you compare the number of people killed and injured by US interventions in the mideast to the number of Americans killed by hijacked airplanes, it should be clear that calling the one “terrorism” (but not the other) is not particularly related to any objective distinction between the amount of pain and suffering being caused. This is as it should be: as the blood, sweat, and tears of generations of utilitarian philosophers illustrate, objectively comparing amounts of pain and suffering is a tough trick to pull off, since you have to act as if a non-fungible thing is fungible. As the boys in Johnny To’s Exiled remind us, feelings are not commodities, and just as you cannot measure a ton of love, neither does it make sense to convert “pain” from metric into old english measurements. And as War or Car reminds us, there is something funny about converting a war into a commodity, something instructive, yet also strikingly perverse.

As a result, we tend to treat crimes by reference not to their effects, but to their causes, introducing qualifiers like premeditated, unpremeditated, politically motivated, temporary insanity, and so forth. Or rather, we mediate the irresolvable problem of suffering’s irreducibility by transforming it into an ethical dilemma: a terrorist who blows you up is worse than a soldier who blows you up, because the one is in service of a good cause, while the other is in service of a bad. And anti-war activists who call both of these activities “terrorism” don’t so much solve the problem as reveal it to be unsolvable, flattening the term to the point where any violence is terrorism. And what, other than foregrounding the difference between legitimate violence and illegitimate, is the point of that?

After all, why is terrorism bad? If George Bush’s terrorism is bad because it is, like the terrorism of <insert scary Islamic guy here>, a violence against innocent people, we’ve moved all the way from “terrorism is violence because it’s terrorism” to “violence is terrorism because it’s violence.” Neither gets us all that far, and at least part of the problem is that “violence” is, itself, impossibly difficult to narrow down: is violence against non-innocent people still violence? Is unintended violence still violence? Is driving a car a form of violence, since it contributes to global warming and all sorts of bad stuff. Are we all little Eichmans? What about the Trolley Car dilemma? If you answer no to these questions, then (again!) we’re just de-linking the violence from its object and returning it to its subject. This is a worrying thing to do, because you start down the road to saying that some violences are actually objectively good. But if you answer yes, then does the the word “violence” even mean anything anymore? By such a standard, pretty much everything is violence.