The Making of Terrorism

The Making of Terrorism

by Michel Wieviorka

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Revised and reissued in light of recent events, this classic and now increasingly important book is an exception in the literature on terrorism. Based on complex observations of actual movement participants, Wieviorka's book addresses a broad spectrum of terrorist activity—from Italian left-wing terrorists to Basque nationalist groups to the international


Revised and reissued in light of recent events, this classic and now increasingly important book is an exception in the literature on terrorism. Based on complex observations of actual movement participants, Wieviorka's book addresses a broad spectrum of terrorist activity—from Italian left-wing terrorists to Basque nationalist groups to the international terrorism of Palestine and the Middle East. The result is an incisive analysis of what terrorists believe and what they hope to achieve through their actions. For this new edition, Wieviorka adds new material that remaps the state of terrorism after the events of 2001.

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Copyright © 1993 The University of Chicago
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ISBN: 978-0-226-89653-3



Social Movement, Antimovement, and Terrorism

There can be, at the inception of a terrorist movement and regardless of the ideals it expresses, currents of sympathy and some measure of understanding on the part of the public, which recognizes a certain legitimacy and common sense to its use of violence. Then, sooner or later, these more-or-less benevolent feelings sour as terrorist violence becomes increasingly lethal and indiscriminate. Terrorism comes to manifest itself on a massive scale and, more importantly, its perpetrators, seeing that they have taken matters too far, drift into irrational patterns of behavior. Moral condemnation goes hand in hand with a blanket dismissal of violence as so much absurdity and madness. These two in turn become the principal categories in a description of violence, which is somehow supposed to take the place of an explanation. How else is one to make sense, for example, of the behavior of those German terrorists who, originally indignant at their fathers' passivity and complicity with regard to nazism, ended up—in a show of support for the Palestinian cause—isolating Jews from the other passengers on the flight they hijacked over Entebbe, with the idea of reserving a special fate for them? Are we not in the presence of utter madness, total absurdity, and barbarism?

These are everyday, rather than sociological, categories. Widely reinforced by a media-based orchestration, in which the machinery of repression plays an appreciable role, these are the categories of the man on the street. As such, they disclose a general refusal to accept as well as an inability to comprehend the language and actions to which a given group has fallen prey. Our task here is not to condemn such phenomena, but rather to bring to light the underlying nature of certain patterns of behavior on the basis of their overt manifestations. In its most extreme forms, terrorism is heavily weighed down with a separatist baggage that cuts off all communication between the meanings it claims for itself and the meaninginglessness that others impute to it. On the one hand, there are the perpetrators of violence who, overcharged with meaning, see themselves as the very embodiment of History, Truth, Justice, the Nation, or the Proletariat; on the other, there are the bystanders, the people it is victimizing who, in the blaze of gunfire, see nothing in it but murderous obscenity and a loss of reason.

Once it has been consummated, this break raises problems for one who would analyze the phenomenon from a sociological perspective. Where there once had been a social relationship, there now is a state of war, and where there had once been people occupying the social or political stage, there are now only obscure power bases. The rapport or relationship needed to ground a sociological analysis has been dissolved. For the terrorist, all meaning has been tipped to one side of the scale while, for those who are outside his circle, said meaning has become entirely divorced from the acts he perpetrates. This surplus of meaning is more than a mere negation of social or political connectedness. The outcome of processes which had drawn the terrorist into a rising spiral of violence, it now bears witness to this actor's inability to shed those original and evanescent ideals which first inspired him to move into action. Instead, he has clung to them, in an increasingly ideological fashion, endowing them with a coherence and cohesiveness that finds its expression in the use of weapons and a flood of rhetorical discourse. These he has processed in a way all his own, a way which, incomprehensible when viewed from without, proves much more rational and logical when viewed from within. He has twisted and kneaded them, but most importantly, he has fused them into a single whole. Before we return to the intellectual processes behind such an endeavor, let us begin by first concentrating on their final result.

Here, our approach will be based on a limited number of cases in which terrorism, originally arising out of social causes, comes to be transformed into spinoffs linked to leftist extremist ideologies. In the end, however, we will show that our hypotheses may be extended to cover other orders of terrorist action.

At no time do leftist extremist actors ever stop championing the idealized notion—whether it be of proletarian labor or the peasantry—of the social movement. Even when it becomes linked to other demands, the social movement remains the central justification for armed resistance, whether such be taken up in order to replace a social movement, to awaken it, or to provide it with the political preconditions necessary for actions of its own. In its extreme forms, however, armed insurgency—thrusting itself in directions which have nothing to do with the image these movements have of themselves—loses all touch with these social movements. The transfigured image that the former may give of the latter may become so far removed from reality as to become antithetical to it. It is for this reason that we will, following the lead of Alain Touraine, take the notion of social antimovement as our starting point, in order to subsequently examine the battered and inverted image of the social movement which terrorism chooses to bear as its standard. In and of itself, this notion cannot suffice to define terrorism sociologically, but it does put us on the right track: terrorism is the most extreme and distorted form an antimovement can take.

The Concept of Social Antimovement

We will begin by taking a number of categories from the sociology of action as our basis for study. A social movement is characterized by three fundamental dimensions—the principles of identity, opposition, and totality—which it is capable of articulating at a highly theoretical level. A social antimovement begins by inverting these three dimensions. Then, rather than combining them, it fuses them together into a single whole.

The principle of identity, which defines the actor and the people in whose name he speaks, ceases to be a reference to any social entity—to producers or workers, for example, in the paradigmatic case of the labor movement—and rather champions some mythic or abstract entity, essence, or symbol. Deified or naturalized, the social entity is thus made out to be either meta- or infrasocial. Here, the armed insurgent expresses himself in the name of such principles as justice, morality, and freedom more often than in that of any real social entity; and he defines himself through his adherence to a community rather than in terms of his insertion into a social relationship, as he would have previously done. When social and national movements band together, the people in whose name the activist speaks become reduced, in his discourse, to a sort of essence or a pure construct, or become defined solely in terms of obstacles to their proper existence. In certain historical instances, this has given rise to the championing of a purity and homogeneity which, inseparable from the fear that can give rise to a refusal of the otherness of the other, may take the forms of racism, anti-semitism, xenophobia, etc.

The principle of opposition that defines the social adversary here becomes transformed into a martial image. No longer is there a rival to be challenged for his monopolization of material or cultural resources, but rather a threatening enemy. Taken a step further, this enemy becomes the epitome of a hostile environment in which the whole of society, law and order, and thereby the state—indeed, the entire geopolitical system defined, for example, as being enslaved by imperialism—are fused together into a single menacing mass. Inside and outside are severed from one another, with war or radical disengagement becoming lowest common denominators. In the most extreme cases, the enemy is not only perceived as being on the outside, but is also seen as having infiltrated to the very midst of the people in the name of which one is speaking, and sometimes into the very workings of one's own organization. This leads to a search for and the elimination of scapegoats, traitors, and spies, and gives the impression of a paranoia that knows no bounds.

The principle of totality which defines the field of historicity that a social movement and a given leader are vying to control, ceases to be a common reference to a given cause, and no longer fuels new future-directed actions. Where there had once been a common ground on which differences could be resolved, now all that remains is a need to overthrow the present system. Rather than seeking to steer the society in which one finds oneself, one instead looks to catapult it into an at times elaborately described future order. Often, this transformation of the principle of totality takes the form of so many pipe dreams of communal utopias, or of myths that combine, at some imaginary level, elements which are in fact irreconcilable. In the most extreme cases, it is the championing of absolutes, of a do-or-die attitude, and of a destruction of the existing order, that predominates. Apparent intermediary or negotiated solutions, state opposition, and the machinery of repression will, in such cases, aggravate rather than palliate such demands for radical disengagement.

A social antimovement—constituted as it is by its reference to an identity defined outside of a properly social relationship, the transformation of adversaries into enemies and the call to radical disengagement—not only inverts the categories of the social movement, but also tends to reduce itself to an ideologically coherent whole. The concept of social antimovement is close to that of totalitarianism, as such was developed by Hannah Arendt and Claude Lefort. As Alain Touraine has noted, it can also be applied to religious sects.

The formation of an antimovement does not necessarily imply that violence, whether defensive or counteroffensive, must come into play. In a single crisis situation, the degeneration of social movements into antimovements may take complementary yet divergent forms, in which a number of participants become radicalized and take up violent activities, while others enter onto a sectarian path as a community turns in on itself. So for example, the Black Panthers appeared on the American scene at the same time as Martin Luther King was becoming a charismatic figure. In the 1980s, the general trend of the American counterculture groups of the 1960s was toward the formation of communes, a certain number of which transformed themselves into religious sects. Others broke up, some fell into self-destructive violence (the "suicide," in the forests of Guyana, of the nine hundred members of the People's Temple sect), while still others drifted into terrorism (the Weathermen). Similarly, as we will show in the final portion of this book, the Islamic movements have long alternated between exemplary community participation and outward-directed violence, combining two orientations which are, in and of themselves, expressions of one and the same urge towards radical disengagement.

An antimovement can constitute the basis for the formation of a terrorist action. The violence specifically associated with such an action does not, however, merit this qualification, at least from the perspective we have adopted, even if it can at times put on a terrorist face. So long, however, as it is carried out by individuals who enjoy real community backing and whom the community recognizes as the more-or-less legitimate spokespersons for its own aspirations, and so long as it is the expression of a radical disengagement the community has undergone or wishes to undergo, such an act does not fall within the purview of a rationale of terrorist action. This is why we will later draw a sharp distinction between pure terrorism and the communal unrest of certain Lebanese Shiite groups.

Terrorism and Social Antimovements

The violence that may stem from a social antimovement is always possessed of a concrete point of reference, from which it more or less directly proceeds. Rationales for terrorist action—which speak, to be sure, in the name of some movement, albeit in an artificial fashion—proceed in a different manner.

Terrorist actors exhibit the three defining principles of a social antimovement, combining the three in a way that can readily be defined as fusion rather than integration. In their case, however, these principles have, on the one hand, deteriorated even further, and on the other have come, in a sense, to feed on themselves. Here it takes the form of a course of violence which, possessed of a rationale all its own, propagates itself without its perpetrators having to verify their words or deeds with the people in whose name they claim to be acting.

Here, the inversion of the principle of identity results in an aggravated subjectivism in which the terrorist, incapable of bringing his own social identity to the fore, defines himself primarily through his total commitment to the cause. He can no longer speak without identifying his personal experience with that of the cause for which he is the self-proclaimed vanguard. This is further facilitated when he takes some given personal experience to be his original point of reference, even before taking up a course of violence. Such was the case, as we will see, in the Italian movement of 1977. An even more striking example was that of the German Red Army Faction whose primary criterion was that of the individual's total commitment to its cause, with an absolute and existential personal break with the system being equated with selfemancipation—whence the constant references, on the part of these terrorists, to the Frankfurt school and, most especially, to Marcuse. Substituting himself in a unilateral if not fanatic manner for a social entity whose existence is an impossibility, or promoting himself as the necessary catalyst for the awakening of a dormant class, the terrorist makes himself out to be the consciousness of all who have been alienated, deprived of the ability to act, or who remain unconscious of the historical role they have to play. In the most extreme of cases, and less often than one may think, he internalizes—sometimes to the point of nihilism and self-destruction—the inability of a social movement to assert itself.

In a complementary fashion, the opposition principle is characterized by a veritable objectivization of the enemy. No longer a threat to be parried or turf to be controlled, he is transformed into a concrete target to attack, properties to destroy, a person to physically eliminate, or a system to annihilate.

Lastly, the principle of totality becomes wholly dissolved, as it were, in a radical disengagement that is at once cast as a life-and-death combat. Gone is nearly every image of a future utopia, description of the society for which one is fighting, or mythic depiction of a new order. The ends of one's acts become confused with their means, with all sense of vision being reduced to plans for the destruction of all that stands in the way of the actor's subjectivity. It is no longer the creation of a new society that is most important, but rather the destruction of the existing order. Unlike revolutionary militants, terrorists speak but rarely of taking over the power of the state, and much more often in terms of striking a blow against the "system." This is why terrorists often give the impression of being pure fanatics. It is also why the only way a terrorist movement can seemingly be brought to a halt is through its forceful defeat and annihilation, by internal collapse, or by the realization of its goals. In this it resembles, in a certain sense, the great totalitarian regimes of this century. The reference to an essence, the subjective identification with history, the struggle against objectivized enemies, and the call to radical disengagement are so many modes for inverting the categories of the social movement, diverging from those of the antimovement, and reducing all one says and does into an ideologically coherent whole. In a terrorist ideology, nothing is out of place. There is hardly a single historical incident it cannot interpret, or into which it cannot, as Hannah Arendt has stated so clearly with regard to totalitarianism, "inject a secret meaning." Its version of events becomes an autonomous system, the evolution of which is generally driven by an internal dialectic. "Once it has established its premise, its point of departure, experiences no longer interfere with ideological thinking, nor can it be taught by reality"—which does not mean, as we will see, that the terrorist is insensitive to the world around him.

It is in this sense that terrorism is an extreme, degenerate, and highly particularized variety of social antimovement. Not only is it irreducible to the latter's patterns of behavior, but it is also incapable of defining itself without lifting, from the movement it takes as its point of reference, categories which it reproduces on a wholly artificial register and which it totally transfigures.

Excerpted from THE MAKING OF TERRORISM by MICHEL WIEVIORKA. Copyright © 1993 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Michel Wieviorka is a professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the editor of the journal Cahiers Internationale de Sociologie.

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