Gandhi, Assange, DeChristopher, Ruben, Mason, Alwan, Hammadi and Commander-in-Chief BushBomba
Over the weekend, the Frontline Club hosted a discusssion moderated by Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow! between Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
The discussion ranged over wide territory, but in this post I want to focus on one particular theme that emerged, namely the relativity and ideological function of the term “terrorism”.
After Goodman listed and quoted various North American politicos (Gingrich, Biden, etc.) who have accused Assange of “terrorism” (some even calling for his assassination), Žižek, in his characteristically provocative way, effectively suggested that Assange embrace the designation since it puts him in a category with Gandhi. Speaking to Assange, Žižek says:
Yes, you are a terrorist! In which sense? In the sense, as I like to repeat, Gandhi was a terrorist…. In what sense was Gandhi a terrorist? He effectively tried to stop — interrupt — the normal functioning of the British State in India. And of course you are trying to interrupt the normal (which is very oppressive) functioning of the information circulation and so on.
Of course, the “terrorism” of which Žižek accuses Assange can only be understood in relation to that other type of terrorism against which it is directed. Žižek makes this point by way of a paraphrase of “that wonderful line” from Bertolt Brecht’s Beggar’s Opera, “What is robbing a bank compared to founding a new bank?”. Žižek:
What is your “terrorism” compared to the terrorism which we simply accept, which has to go on day by day so that just things remain the way they are? That’s were ideology holds us. When we talk about “violence”, “terrorism” — we always think about acts which interrupt the normal run of things. But what about violence which has to be here in order for things to function the way they are? So I think if (and I am very skeptical about it) we should use (in my provocative spirit I’m tempted to) the term “terrorism”, its strictly a reaction to a much stronger terrorism which is here. So, again, instead of engaging in this moralistic game — oh no, he is a good guy (like the Stalinists said about Lenin), you like small children, you play with cats, you wouldn’t (as Norman Bates says in Psycho) wouldn’t hurt even a fly. No! You are in this formal sense a terrorist.
But if you are a terrorist — my God! — what are then they who accuse you of terrorism?
Žižek’s point can be generalized to others who have been accused of “terrorism”.
Consider, for example, environmental activism:
What is the property damage of Marie Mason or Rebecca Rubin to the ecological destruction of the institutions they targeted?
Even symbolic gestures are at risk of being legally re-framed as terrorism. But what is Tim DeChristopher’s auction sabotage compared to the coming onslaught of climate change?
Consider, moreover, the various insurgencies against the U.S. military occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.
To take a specific example, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell refers to Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi as terrorists. Their crime? Working with and supporting a domestic insurgency against a foreign army that has invaded and occupied their country. Greenwald highlights the absurdity of labeling them terrorists:
One can have a range of views about the morality and justifiability of Iraqi nationals attacking U.S. troops in their country. One could say that it is the right of Iraqis to attack a foreign army brutally invading and occupying their nation, just as Americans would presumably do against a foreign army invading their country (at least those who don’t share Mitch McConnell’s paralyzing fears and cowardice). Or one could say that it is inherently wrong and evil to attack U.S. troops no matter what they’re doing or where they are in the world, even when waging war in a foreign country that is killing large numbers of innocent civilians. Or one could say that the American war in Iraq in particular was such a noble effort to spread Freedom and Democracy that only an evil person would fight against it. Or one could say that it’s always wrong for a non-state actor to engage in violence (a very convenient standard for the U.S., given that very few nations around the world could resist U.S. force without reliance on such unconventional means). And one can recognize that most nations, not only the U.S., would apprehend those engaged in attacks against their troops.
But whatever one’s views are on those moral questions, in what conceivable sense can it be called “Terrorism” for a citizen of a country to fight against foreign invading troops by attacking purely military targets?
But even if it made sense to label insurgents against an occupying army “terrorists”, to return to the Brecht/Žižek question, what is arming an insurgency to a war of aggression?