Global Executioner: Scales of Terror

The French philosopher Joseph de Maistre argued that insofar as human beings were constantly tempted to evil by their deepest passions, the maintenance of a peaceful social order ultimately depended on a single person, the executioner. It was much the same with nation states, according to Maistre, which “are born and die like individuals” and have a singular soul, a singular “race.” Reason was insufficient to combat passion, he believed, and the hiatus between them was inevitably colonized by power, whether between individuals or nations. The state takes on the role of executioner.

This conflation of scales – the assumption of a homology between individual and nation, a seamless continuity between individual and national behavior – Maistre shares with many Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment thinkers alike, and it is foundational to the nation building project that accompanied the emergence of nation states in the eighteenth century. For want of a more sophisticated geography of global affairs, this ideological scale conflation retains a resonant appeal today in self-understandings of US foreign policy, whose justificatory discourse is full of recourse to nations as schoolyard bullies or “rogues.” It registers too in the defensive identification of individuals with government during times of conflict (“we should bomb Iraq”) in a country and a national culture that prides itself as anti-government.

This historical comparison is anything but idle. Maistre, a self-defined reactionary, was writing in the aftermath of the French revolution and reflecting on Robespierre’s self-defined role as executioner during the Reign of Terror, an episode that gave us the word “terrorism” to describe government rule by terror. As emerging bourgeois nation-states came to define themselves in opposition to the rule of terror, “terrorism” was increasingly redefined as non- governmental even anti-governmental, activity as in its routine epithetic use to describe postwar anti-colonial struggles, or the Red Brigade of the late 1960s. The more recent polemical discovery in the West of “state terrorism” has worked to isolate those states that combined two characteristics: domestically and perhaps internationally their governments were often (but not always) authoritarian, and economically they refused to be governed by the laws of the capitalist world market and its attendant political structures. Implicitly, however, the recognition of state terrorism reintroduces de Maistre’s sense of states as executioners.

Since September 11th when the World Trade Center was felled by hijacked commercial aircraft and a wing of the Pentagon similarly destroyed, and especially since October 7th when US retaliation against Afghanistan commenced (notwithstanding that none of the hijackers was Afghani), we have been living through a further dramatic evolution in the meaning of terrorism. Here too the question of conflated scales has been crucial. In one sense, the attack on the World Trade Center was strictly local insofar as the affected site itself measures no more than 16 acres. Yet this was obviously and equally a global event: the hijackers from several countries led multinational lives; victims were of 83 nationalities; the unfolding catastrophe was instantaneously broadcast on television screens around the world; the economic, political and cultural fallout has been global. It was not, however, a clearly defined national event in the moments immediately following the attacks. For all that they were on US soil, the targets were symbols of global as much as national economic and military power, and such obvious symbols of US national and cultural power as the Statue of Liberty, Hollywood and Disneyworld were not targeted. If indeed Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network are responsible, the perpetrators have no coherent national identity either.

To a significant extent the national scale response had to be manufactured. Although this was not an attack by one nation against another, it was quickly made to look as such. After several hours the red footer on CNN’s coverage, “Attack on America,” displaced “WTC in Flames”; the “American crusade against terrorism” and “homeland security” came only after days; the flag waving emerged later still as if filling a vacuum of any other plausible responses; despite an admitted dearth of intelligence, the US government immediately identified bin Laden as the culprit and fused his identity with that of the Taliban and eventually Afghanistan. Nor was this nationalization of attack and response merely ideological. In the hours after the first plane hit, the Mexican border was unilaterally closed then the Canadian; all incoming air traffic was diverted outside the country, while national shutters were dropped on US financial and currency markets.

The nationalization of 9/11 had everything to do with justifying 10/7. The target was ostensibly a transnational network but the US military attacked a nation; despite the constant racist refrain by a coalition of the US media and government that bin Laden was hunkered down in caves, a major airborne pounding of Afghanistan’s major cities ensued. National identity and nationalism have been the privileged discourses of war since the eighteenth century when a consistent division of the global political economy into discrete nations spawned a long wave of nation-state building, and although now challenged by a new kind of globalism, national-scale prerogatives still govern the conduct of war, even when war materializes as a conflict fought at regional or global scales or via multinational coalitions.

And yet this nationalization of response invites its own ideological Trojan Horse. In the face of xenophobic attacks on America’s streets against Muslims, South Asians and people who simply looked Middle Eastern, George W. Bush was taken for a dutiful tour of a mosque in Washington DC where he made the terse distinction between good Muslims and bad Muslims, good Arabs and bad Arabs, insisting that with a few exceptions (perhaps 1500 of whom have since been unconditionally detained), Arabs and Muslims already in the US were assumed of the good variety while the terrorists were “foreign.” This distinction was necessary if the contradictory nationalization of response was to appear coherent, but it had the effect of smuggling the definition of terrorism into the heart of American national identity, raising the prospect of multiplier contradictions. The anthrax attacks quickly highlighted the contradiction: if this is a war against terrorism why has bioterrorism, which is widely believed to be an outgrowth of right wing militia or nationalist politics (possibly emanating from the government’s own labs), not attracted the same response as the war against Afghanistan? Quite the opposite: the official response has been to minimize the importance of the anthrax attacks. The willingness of the federal government to speculate about the perpetrators of the WTC attack in the absence of good intelligence (as they themselves have complained) stands in stark contrast to their refusal to speculate about the source of anthrax terrorism, even though reproductive rights clinics around the country have for years reported anthrax threats and Democrats are the target of choice.

The larger point here is that this recourse to a nationalized anti-terrorism discourse puts the stability of American national identity itself in jeopardy. The obviousness with which this had to be manufactured as a national scale event suggests the thread bareness of US nationalism, the vulnerability of that nationalist project, the flag waving and xenophobic violence notwithstanding. The nationalist rhetoric clashes awkwardly with the Zeitgeist of globalization.

This begins to point us toward the peculiarity of the present predicament. Anti-Arab violence did not send Bush senior to a mosque in 1991 when he bombed Baghdad, nor did it force the distinction between good and bad Arabs and Muslims. Why do defensive holes begin to appear in such an aggressive and powerful US national power? Here we come upon a rather different conflation of scales. Ironically, a largely (but by no means solely) US-inspired globalism has conflated national scale interests in the US with global scale interests. The results are highly contradictory. On the one hand, this conflation of national and global prerogatives materializes another central tenet of the eighteenth century liberalism that gave birth to nation states. The liberal principles of justice, democracy and the freedom of markets — Locke, Adam Smith, and the French Revolution — were not just invested in the institutions of nation-state building, but were held to be universal, global. Americanism today carries with it the profound trace not only of a homologous human nature but of moral inevitability at the global scale, effortlessly conflating American parochialism with global truth. Post 1970s globalization reintroduces these central tenets of eighteenth century liberalism in ways that are recognized worldwide as an American inflected “neo-liberalism.”

Yet at the same time, this new globalism undercuts the very nationalized world that created it, hence the vulnerability of US nationalism even as US elites dominate (but by no means control) the direction of global change. This is not in any way the end of the nation state or the beginning of a post-national world, even if many national states are dramatically weakened at the behest of economic globalization, but it is a significant moment in the restructuring of functions at the global scale and the rescaling of many activities previously organized through national scale states. The vulnerability of nation states is apparent today in a way unimaginable even in the 1980s.

Viewed this way, the so-called war on terrorism can be seen as a war between alternative modes of terror. On the one hand we have a regressive and reactionary nationalism aspiring to resolve the dilemma of a hollowing national scale by again pushing for global economic and military control, up to and including the use of state terror. Although the US media systematically filters it out, this is certainly the perception in large parts of the world, viscerally shared by Afghan civilians who no more deserved to die after 10/7 than did those in the World Trade Center on 9/11. For them the US war against terrorism is a war of terrorism. On the other hand, an even more reactionary anti-nationalism leads not forward from the violence of nationalism but back — to a kind of faith-based terrorism which has as its targets not simply a “decadent” United States but various “false” Islamic regimes of the Middle East. Whether the latter champions an alternative modernity or simply an anti-modernism is not transparent, however much its origins lay in the postwar failures to construct an Arab modernity embodied in the nation-states of the Middle East.

The war on terrorism, therefore, is a thinly disguised attempt by the Bush administration to re-establish control in the one region of the world where a plausible alternative could crystallize to the US-inspired vision of globalization promulgated over the last two decades. It is not, therefore, a geopolitical struggle in the old, increasingly obsolete, sense but a geo-economic struggle over the power to design and operate the new globalism. Huntington has caricatured this as a “clash of civilizations,” but the self-aggrandizing parodic superficiality of such an assessment should be clearer than ever. The US never directly controlled this region, but its proxy power was effectively lost in the years after 1967 when Israel asserted its partial independence in grabbing further Palestinian territory, OPEC began to assert itself, and the Iranian revolution coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These events pushed successive US administrations into a Faustian bargain with Israel and established a series of defensive pacts in the region, supporting the enemies of their enemies, setting up or affirming monsters of their own making from Baghdad to Jerusalem, Teheran to Kabul.

However doomed to repeat this costly mistake, the “war against terrorism” relives Maistre’s dilemma of social order and state violence. With the power of nation states increasingly challenged, the United States sits astride this dilemma at the global scale. Claiming to be the voice of reason against the inexplicable irrationality of religious fundamentalists and “cave dwellers,” anti-Americanism and terrorism, it at the same time unleashes the passions of its own nationalism in a wave of redemptive global violence abroad while fashioning a menacing security state at home. As the lone superpower, acting with no real check or balance on its global behavior, the global executioner plants the stars and stripes on Afghan soil while insisting this is a global war against terrorism.

Rather than a war on terrorism, we may therefore be witnessing the blossoming of a war between alternative forms of terror, a war that is nonetheless anxiously poured into the familiar if dubious mold of nation versus nation. Each of the two forms of terror boasts global ambitions, competing for the space evacuated by the erosion of national-scale economic (if not necessarily political) power. If these are neo-liberal times, the central contradiction of neo-liberalism between the free market and state control may apply to terrorism with the same precision as to the economy. This raises the chilling possibility that we have entered a world divided between free market terrorism of the bin Laden/al Qaeda type and the state sponsored form of terrorism through which the US, the UK and other “coalition states” attempt to reassert geo-economic control over a force that could threaten a regional or even trans-regional breakaway from Wall Street globalism.

Neil Smith is Distinguished Professor Of Anthropology and Geography and Director of the Center for Place Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.