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The Root Meanings Of Terrorism

By Louis Rene Beres The Jewish Press November 23, 2005

The professional literature on terrorism and counter-terrorism remains
dense and murky. Anesthetized and bloodless, it is a literature that generally
steers clear of the most meaningful forms of understanding. For this to ,change
we must first investigate the primary connections between
terrorism-inflicted suffering and psychological persuasion.

Al-Qaeda operatives, perhaps together with various Palestinian allies, are
planning future attacks against the United States — most likely with chemical
and/or biological weapons. This we know for certain. A nuclear “dirty-bomb”
event is also conceivable, although substantially less probable. But what do
these prospective terrorists, destroyers of Americans really seek? It seems
like a silly question, terribly obvious and contrived. And yet, our usual
answers are almost always superficial and unhelpful.

Conceptually, the terrorists want to transform pain into power. This
transformation is not always easy, as the correlation is not always proportionate.
It is even possible, at least on occasion, that delivering the most
excruciating pain will inhibit terrorist power, while causing less pain, will enhance
terrorist power.

The terrorist who now prepares mega-sized attacks on Americans and who seeks
to transform pain into power has already learned from the torturer. He
understands that pain, to be strategic, must point toward death, but that it must
not always kill. This is not to suggest that terrorists do not seek to
produce dead Americans, but rather that, leaving alive many American witnesses
who will themselves now fear annihilation, is an absolutely essential part of
the perverse drama.

In the fashion of the torturer, the terrorist takes what is usually private
and incommunicable, the pain contained within the boundaries of the
sufferer`s own body, and uses it to affect the behavior of others. A defiled form of
theater that draws political power from the innermost depths of privacy,
terrorism manipulates and amplifies pain within the individual human body for
the express purpose of influencing others who live outside that body. Violating
the inviolable, it declares with unspeakable cruelty, not only that no one
is immune, but also that everyone`s most personal horror can be made public.

America hears from certain quarters of the Islamic world that the “martyrs”
who slay our countrymen have a distinct political motive. Surely, these
killers do not kill gratuitously. Rather, they kill to “recover the land,” to
“reclaim our rights,” to “prevent foreign intervention,” to “acquire
self-determination,” to “rid us of tyrants,” etc. Once these proper objectives are
realized, Washington is assured, all will be well. The killers will “return” to a
life of peace. There will be no more pain. The violent deconstruction of a
civilization, the razing of what has been assembled for literally thousands of
years, will announce its own end.

Yet, what America hears it does not always understand. Like the victim of
torture who is told again and again that his pain is related to a reluctant
disclosure of information, Washington now confronts a carefully choreographed
masquerade. With the United States, as with the torture victim, the declared
motive of the perpetrator is manifestly fiction. The torturer tortures because
he enjoys torturing. The terrorist terrorizes with delight, even with a
grotesque gratification, because that is exactly what he wants to do.

The torturer cannot be stopped by answering his questions (the overwhelming
majority of torture victims know absolutely nothing about such questions, and
the torturer knows that his victims know nothing). The terrorist cannot be
stopped by giving in to terror. In the case of the United States, the
Jihad-driven Islamic terrorist will cease his terror only when Washington accepts
complete impotence, and surrenders to Holy War.

The terrorist and his victims experience pain and power as opposites. As the
victims` suffering grows, so does the power of the terrorist. And as the
power of the terrorist grows, so does the pain of his victims. For the
bystanders, and this includes all of our country that is not directly involved in a
particular terrorist attack, each infliction of pain is a mock execution, a
reminder of American vulnerability and a denial of American power.

For the terrorist, pain is inflicted to alter consciousness, but he knows
also that it must always be a purposeful change. Here Washington must
understand that what matters most to the terrorists, after they have inflicted great
pain upon victim populations, is not so much the content of the government`s
response, but rather the mere fact of a response. Simply that our government
has had to answer the terrorists, apart from the precise content of that
answer, represents a growth of terrorist power.

Of course, the American government has to answer; hence, it can act to
diminish terrorist power only by instituting adequate forms of prevention. And
even before such preventive measures can be undertaken, it is necessary to
understand that our enemies are animated by altogether irremediable hatred and by
an utter abhorrence of compromise. This fact cannot be overstated.

The terrorist, like the torturer, can even alter human language. With each
successive act of terrorism, America will lose more of its “voice.” After a
time, if nothing more is done about the terrorist exploitation of American
pain as power, Washington will be left dumb. In response, the terrorist,
confronted with an American victim who has now become conspicuously pitiable, will
close in with foreseeable ferocity for still more attacks.

There is one last point, an observation spawned, perhaps, by this writer`s
long scholarly and consultative involvement with the threat of “higher-order”

(chemical/biological/nuclear) terrorism. A terrorist escalation in the
“quality” of terror could follow directly from pertinent correlations of pain and
power. All terrorism intends to change a prospective victim`s general
awareness that, “all persons must die” to the more specific awareness, “I must die —
and maybe soon.” Insofar as a resort to vastly more destructive forms of
terror could hasten this change, such resort should certainly not be dismissed
out of hand. The facile observation that “terrorists have no reason to
escalate” is a product of the most fragile syllogisms.

The pain occasioned by terrorism, a pain that confers power upon the
terrorist, begins within the private body, and then spills out more widely into the
body politic. Wanting the two realms to become indistinguishable, the
terrorist understands that it is certainly not enough that the victims feels pain.
Rather, the pain must also be felt, vicariously but palpably, by all those
who might still become victims in the future. For all governments currently
waging a war on terror, this is an understanding of immediate operational

Copyright, The Jewish Press. All rights reserved.

LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and
articles dealing with terrorism in general and nuclear terrorism in
particular. His 1980 book, Terrorism and Global Security: the Nuclear Threat, now in
its second edition, was the featured Main Selection of the MacMillan Library of
Political and International Affairs.

Professor Beres lectures widely on terrorism in Europe and the Middle East,
and has been associated with various public and private counter-terrorism
efforts for more than a quarter-century. He is Strategic and Military Affairs
columnist for the Jewish Press.

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