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Religion and Society

The New Politics of the Old Guillotine

Strategies of terror /1. Three analytical keys (physical, ethical and theological-political) in order to try to describe and circumscribe the phenomenon born in France after Robespierre, which then developed in various historical stages and ideological trajectories and today can be found primarily in a certain kind of Islamic fundamentalism. An open reflection without prejudices or pre-packaged answers, in line with impelling questions that trouble Muslim man as they trouble Christian man, the West and the East.

The term 'terrorism' was born in France after the fall of Robespierre in 1794 to refer to the politics of the guillotine. Subsequently, it was applied to very varying phenomena. Today, it is used above all else to refer to actions of violence perpetrated by Islamist political-religious associations. But what is 'terrorism'? Is it possible to provide a physical, ethical or theological-political definition of this phenomenon? Let us term 'physical' a definition that is unconnected with the ethical dimension. Clausewitz defined war as 'an act of violence designed to force the adversary to carry out our will'. (1)This definition applies to terrorism. Seen in terms of its expressions, terrorism is a form of violence. Conceived in terms of its essence, 'it is a form of war' and as such the instrument of a policy.


Why does a conflict take the form of a terrorist war or anti-terrorist war? Because of 'asymmetry'. Indirect strategy (2)advises the weak to flee from a clash with the strong. Today, the disproportion between forces is such that for the weak 'to wage war' in a classic sense is suicide. What will the weak do if they exclude, contemporaneously, non-violent resistance, useless fighting and capitulation? They will no longer constitute a state because a state that rises against a strong state will be destroyed. It will be a nebulous entity. The war will become hidden. The clandestine soldier does not have a uniform. Hidden among civilians he does not attack the military, except at the level of hit and run. The target is above all civilian, an enemy or a collaborator. For the weak, defined in terms of its purpose, the asymmetrical war is resistance; defined in terms of their instruments, it is terrorism.


In order to 'defend freedom' or 'terrorise the terrorists', the strong monitor everything and reduce the space of private life. The idea of security suggests to them the idea of authoritarian democracy. Terrorist action would not have an effect without the resonant drum of the mass media. This suggests to the strong the policy of limiting freedom of information. The strength of the terrorist is terror: the strong, therefore, are tempted to install a symmetrical terror.


The strong and the weak thus run the risk of both finding themselves faced with the following dilemma: criminal resistance or non-resistance? Does the right to resist also include the right to use all methods to resist? Does the perverse character of certain methods create a moral obligation to engage in non-resistance? Is it necessary to go beyond war to move towards the control of violence?


When ethics are put in a parenthesis, violence is force and force is violence. Every stable power is legitimate; every effective means is good. The essence of war is to 'force the adversary'. What forces is not force but fear of its effects: destruction, wounds, infirmity, death. This fear is called terror. If there is no morality, any means that produces terror is, in war, a method like any other. Leaving aside morality, terrorism is not the privilege of asymmetrical war; it tends to become the essence of war. It is true that every war is violent if by this we mean that it inflicts destruction and death. Fear that is the element of war (3). Excluding some rare monsters, nobody in essential terms leaves to one side good and evil. It is necessary, therefore, to distinguish between force and violence, in war as well. Good tends to express itself in law. This law, whether national or international, is applied only if there exists a power that is capable of opposing oppositions in the application of law (4). There is no international law without the threat of resort to force, without people and institutions that have as their mission a trial of force, with the risks that this involves. These people are the soldiers of law. These institutions are the armed forces of the countries that recognise the idea of law.


Resort to force at the service of law is not in itself a violence. The term 'legitimate violence' is contradictory, like the definition of a state as being a monopoly of legitimate violence. If the concept of a 'just war' has a meaning, there is a difference between war and terrorism. Otherwise, it does not. From an ethical perspective, therefore, what in war is intrinsically perverse may be called terrorism. Terrorism is a war crime.



The Weak and the Strong


As the world becomes a unity, it must be structured according to a coherent single set of principles. In the absence of a sufficiently comprehensive synthesis, globalisation could lead to a conflict between the West and the rest of the world with the aim of holding supreme constituent power. Thus some American leaders think that the defence of freedom by now requires a universalisation of their concept of freedom.


It is necessary to examine at a pure conceptual level the war that threatens to break out as well, without forgetting that some moderating facts impede reality from reflecting this concept (pure war is not real war). Terrorism acquires its meaning beginning with this pure concept.


In a globalised world a pure terrorist, or asymmetrical, war would be a global social war. Indeed, the strong are educated, equipped, rich; the weak are those who have, in relative terms, the opposing features. A pure asymmetrical war would be an international war, a social war, an ethnic war, without doubt also a war of cultures or of religions. It would conjoin all the factors of division and this would make of it an integral war rather than a total war.


Classically, peace is the result of balance the idea of which is destroyed by a superpower. Peace, in such circumstances, can only be imperial. The unilateral right of a strong nation to its security would imply in extremis that others are deprived of the right to an autonomous protection and are subjected to a protectorate. Such a situation is certainly not acceptable and provokes a symmetrical reaction.


'Revolutionary immigration' will thus respond to neo-colonialism. The demographic differentials and the democratic rule of 'one man, one voice' would mean in the end immigration dominated by radicals and would provoke the conquest of power by the poor. Terrorism would without doubt have a role in this revolution. But such a political abdication is not in the least imaginable.


Before this, if the weakest were to try to escape dominion the solution for them would be to have a sanctuary-state for the storing of weapons of mass destruction and for friendly terrorist movements which would thereby have a secure operational base. Terrorism would become one of the organic dimensions of political-military action.


The parade of the strong, according to the pure concept, is to impede the realisation of this response. The casus belli goes beyond this. War becomes preventive because once the possession of the absolute weapon has been secured, terrorism has its hands free and anti-terrorism has lost.There can be no doubt that there is no solution in reality that leads to systems of collective security. But these political systems raise an objection because of their weak effective strategy and tactics. Would not collective security be a contradiction in terms? For Kant, the progress of weapons would have put an end to wars through the certainty of guaranteed destruction. But this is no longer sufficient when some people think that security is obtained through a preventive attack. (5) In addition, for some people who are responsible for security, faced with such perils the application of 'the ethics of responsibility' runs the risk of making the common good prevail in a massive way over the individual good, over individual freedom, and over every other principle.


Paul VI stated that 'development is the new name of peace'. (6) But today it seems to be a new difficulty because development allows armaments. It is therefore necessary to develop in a way that impedes armaments? That controls the foreign and military policy of developing countries? Dictatorships would be a provisional solution if they were friendly and stable but in the end it is necessary to have a minimum of democracy, which, however, could bring adversaries to power. Would cynicism advise the establishment of democracies which are not very stable through force, through manipulation of their workings and the containment of revolutionaries through force and the legitimacy of these young democracies, which for that matter would have to remain for a long time divided and weak?


Cynicism is absurd. The globalisation of information and transparency weakens the principal conditions of political, secret, and raison d'état Machiavellianism.


For the sceptics and the cynics, terrorism is for a human group that which is called by this name. The description of the referent replaces the definition of the name. And for these, outside the group, the objective judgements of value of this referent have no value.


Some utilitarians justify atrocious methods at the service of anti-terrorist action. (7) However sophisticated it may be, utilitarianism can justify practically anything according to consequences and circumstances, with reference to the imperative of collective survival. In Europe their theses in the military field are scandalous. At the same time a cluster of normative judgements are called into question in Europe itself in the name of a radical overcoming of the notions of good and evil: libertine nihilism suffers here from a notable incoherence.


Are criminal methods in themselves really criminal or they are criminal only by convention? To place an absolute limit on action assumes an Absolute that has the power to limit that action. The personal Absolute, God, is at the base of a moral imperative or a moral prohibition. But if man were the Absolute, why would he not impose numerous different prohibitions? Not to believe in God does not avoid the clash of fanaticisms because nihilism, too, can become fanatical. Whatever the case, if every value is simply decided, in war everything is terrorism or nothing is.


But if there exists a truth about God, war of religion is possible when a conflict of duties arises between the existence itself of religion and attachment to peace. If God authorises just war, even for a grave simply temporal reason, does He make of this war a holy war? Does He unconditionally impede the use of certain methods in that war? To what extent does divine will transcend the moral laws that divine will establishes? Can war be holy? Can holy war use all methods? These are questions for the theologians of the various religions of the world and for inter-religious dialogue.



Clash of Civilisations?


Asymmetrical conflict involves a tension between traditional systems of thought and life and the absolute hegemony of technical thought in which the modernity, or the post-modernity, of the West ends up by expressing itself. Terrorism has the meaning of a total and absolute rejection of Western thought reduced to this nihilism which is its poorest and most degraded form. In this sense, terrorist war is a clash of civilisations. But this clash, which is also within the West, no longer follows the fractures between the rich and the poor, or, for that matter, between the West taken in all its traditions and the rest of the world.


The hatred expressed by the actions of terrorists without doubt does not have a deeper explanation. And yet it is not in Europe, where nihilism is the most dominant, that the anti-terrorist reaction is at its most vigorous. The situation, therefore, is veiled by confusions and threaded through with contradictions.


The adversaries of libertine nihilism, with which the West has always identified, and those of democracy, understood as nihilistic libertine society, have also swallowed a dose of nihilism. For that matter, it is not possible to fight without the technical. Their cynicism is the result of technical inhumanity as much as the theological fanaticism of a religiosity that is in crisis. Identity is more violently affirmed the more it is sick. Globalised terrorism derives, perhaps, less from the clash of civilisations than from the clash of nihilisms. In the West it is necessary to rediscover the ethical substance of democracy, the good free society.



(1) C. Von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, De la Guerre, first part, chapter 1, 2, Definition



(2) As Basil Hugh Liddle-Hart teaches at a detailed level: Strategy, passim.



(3) 'Absolute courageis infinitely rareFaced with danger the animal sentiment of self-preservation always prevails. Man is terrified of death. Discipline has as its task to commit violence against this horror with a greater horrorbut the moment alays arrives when natural horror prevails over discipline and the fighter flees': A. Du Picq, Etudes sur le combat, (1868), Economica, Paris, 2004, p. 79.



(4) As Kant emphasises in The Metaphysical Principles


of the Doctrine of Law, introduction, E: 'Rigorous law can be represented as the possibility of a general reciprocal constriction that agrees with the freedom of each person in accordance with universal laws'



(5) Nuclear dissuasion is based upon rationality understood as natural preference for survival. In a regime of despair, a solution of guaranteed mutual destruction can appear,in the final analysis, acceptable to the weaker party. And the stronger party may wish to run risks that it would never have dared to run in times that it was healthier.



(6) Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 26 March 1967, first sub-title of 76.



(7) F. Allhoff, 'Terrorism and Torture', in International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 17-1.