Those born in 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks will be 18 in 2019. What have they grown up with? What have they been exposed to on the news? What sort of world have they been living in?
Following 9/11 there was Bush’s “global war on terrorism”. In reality, it was just “war” where, in invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and in other campaigns as well) US imperialism attempted (and failed) to assert its position as the only surviving super power.
But what about terrorism? That seems to have gone from outrage to atrocity, from unspeakable massacre to indiscriminate terror. To take a handful of examples, there were the 2002 bombings in a tourist area of Bali where more than 200 people were killed and hundreds injured. In 2004 there were the bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid which killed 193 people and injured 2000. In 2011 there were the attacks by Anders Breivik: a car bomb in Oslo which killed 8 and injured more than 200 - followed by the attack on a summer camp where he killed 69 and injured more than 100. In Paris in November 2015 there were mass shootings and suicide bombing at cafes and restaurants, culminating in the attacks on the Bataclan theatre; 130 died and more than 400 were injured. There was the attack in Nice in 2016 where a lorry was driven through crowds of people celebrating 14 July where 86 died and nearly 500 were injured. Also in 2016, there was the attack on the gay club in Orlando, where 49 people were shot and many injured. More recently we have seen bloody attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego.
And how does the capitalist media explain terrorism? The perpetrators are typically described as Islamist fanatics, or white supremacists. Their crime is “extremism”. But there have been other massacres with individuals “on the rampage” as in the US school shootings such as Parkland, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech. How do they fit into the picture? Or what about the October 2017 shootings in Las Vegas where a man fired more than 1000 rounds of ammunition into a crowd of concertgoers, killing 58 people and injuring hundreds? For the media people are bad or mad, or sometimes there is just no explanation.
The shootings at two mosques in March this year in Christchurch, New Zealand, added one grotesque element to the horror as it was live-streamed on the internet for all the world to see. There were many stories about the 51 Muslim worshippers who were killed, some of whom had moved from other countries (including Iraq, Palestine, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Turkey) in the hope of finding a haven from war and persecution in their country of origin. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was praised for her empathy and sensitivity, while she tried to find ways to censor the internet
In Sri Lanka the attacks in April on Christian churches and luxury hotels by suicide bombers left 258 people dead and more than 500 injured. The government had received warnings in advance from Indian Intelligence Agencies that the attacks were imminent, but did nothing to stop them. After the events the Sri Lankan government strengthened its apparatus of repression with a number of measures including the need for all sermons in mosques to be submitted to the relevant ministry.
A framework to understand terrorism
How are this year’s 18-year olds supposed to make sense of terrorism? The only possible approach is to look at the phenomenon in class terms, and historically. In 1978 the ICC published an article and a resolution on terrorism, terror and class violence. These were attempts to re-assert the marxist position, on, among other things, the distinction between capitalist state terror and the terrorism of intermediate social strata.
The terror of the bourgeoisie, whether by the state or other bodies, has as its goal the perpetuation of exploitation and the rule of the capitalist class. “Terrorism on the other hand is a reaction of oppressed classes who have no future, against the terror of the ruling class. They are momentary reactions, without continuity, acts of vengeance with no tomorrow”. (https://en.internationalism.org/ir/014_terror.html). Terrorism is “not directed against capitalist society and its institutions, but only against individuals who represent this society. It inevitably takes on the aspect of a settling of scores, of vengeance, of a vendetta, of person against person and not a revolutionary confrontation of class against class.” (https://en.internationalism.org/content/2649/resolution-terrorism-terror...)
In the 19th century two notable exponents of terrorism were the Narodniks in Russia and certain French anarchists in the 1890s. Three consecutive examples of the latter give an idea of their “propaganda by the deed”. In December 1893 Auguste Vaillant threw a home-made bomb into the French Chamber of Deputies, causing only limited injuries to a few of those present. In February 1894 Emile Henry set off a bomb in a bar in the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. When asked why he had hurt so many innocent people he said “there are no innocent bourgeois”. In Lyon in June 1894 Sante Caserio stabbed and killed the French President Carnot. It was episodes like these that gave anarchism a violent image for decades. The leading anarchist Peter Kropotkin distanced mainstream anarchism from this tendency: “an edifice which is built on centuries of history will not be destroyed by a few kilos of explosives”. The classic expressions of petit-bourgeois ‘revolt’ were not so prevalent in the twentieth century, although we can point to the Red Army Faction (Baader–Meinhof Gang) in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy in the 1970s and 80s, and the Angry Brigade in the UK in the 1970s.
In contrast to these petit-bourgeois expressions of ‘revolt’, the methods of terrorism, bombs detonated in public places, indiscriminate shootings etc, became part of the arsenal of factions in intra-bourgeois conflicts, in inter-imperialist wars. The US State Department’s standard definition of terrorism is appropriate here: “politically motivated attacks on non-combatant targets”. Examples that come to mind are the activities of the Stern gang and Irgun in Palestine in the 1940s, the bombings and massacres of the factions in the Algerian War (1954-62), the car bombs, shootings and retaliations of paramilitary gangs in Northern Ireland, or the decades long bombing campaigns of ETA in Spain. All these show terrorism in the service of identifiable bourgeois goals.
Some academics see these as examples of a period of ‘old terrorism’. This changes to a ‘new terrorism’ in the 1990s with, as an early example, the 1993 attempt to destroy the World Trade Centre with a massive truck bomb beneath the North Tower (which was supposed to collapse into the South Tower) “So‐called ‘new terrorists’, on the other hand, are nihilistic, are inspired by fanatical religious beliefs, and are willing to seek martyrdom through suicide. They rarely set out aims that appear remotely attainable; they give no warnings; they do not engage in bargaining; they find compromise solutions to problems unappealing; they are willing and even eager to carry out the mass slaughter of non‐combatants; and they frequently do not even claim responsibility for their deeds.” (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics)
Other examples of this ‘new terrorism’ are the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack on the Tokyo underground or the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in which hundreds were injured and more than 150 died, in revenge for the attack on Waco
However, neither the analysis of academics nor the sensational accounts of tabloids give any real explanation for this development. For all the talk of irrational hatreds, racism, fanaticism, alienation, nihilism etc, the commentators who serve the bourgeoisie cannot give any truthful answers because the roots of terrorism lie in a global capitalist system that has outlived its usefulness, but will continue its decay until it is destroyed. With a stalemate between the two main social classes in capitalism - the proletariat and the bourgeoisie - terrorism is just one of the phenomena, along with fanaticism and nihilism, which proliferates with decomposing capitalism. For some, desperation in the face of the miserable reality of capitalism leads to the flight into religion or other drugs; for others the certainties of religious or political dogma inflame a desire for destruction, of self or of others. But where the impotent terrorist acts of intermediate strata in the nineteenth century were fleeting moments of ‘revolt’, today’s terrorism is an expression of the nihilism at the heart of a rotting social order.
In Northern Ireland in April, the journalist Lyra McKee was killed by the paramilitaries of the “Real IRA” as they shot at the police. Politicians rushed to condemn the action, while still maintaining their various roles to sustain the society that produces terrorism. In an article published in 2016 (“Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies”) McKee showed that, in Northern Ireland, more people committed suicide in the 16 years after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 than died in the 29 years of violent conflict before it. This shows what capitalism really has to offer; its ‘peace process’ led to a world without prospects, with, for many, seemingly, nothing to live for. The prospects of war are horrifying, the reality of ‘peace’ in capitalism unbearable. Those in the marxist tradition argue that capitalism has its own gravediggers, the working class, which offers the perspective of revolution against a society where fear and terror are endemic, and for a society based on relations of solidarity.