Terrorism and the Prerogative of Violence:
Lessons from Israel’s 2006 Attack on Lebanon
University of Texas
For Western States Communication Association Conference
Feb. 16-20, 2007
My graduate students and I have been working for some time on project loosely defined as being about rhetoric and/of violence. (These students and former students include Kristen Hoerl, Amanda Davis, and Jennifer Asenas.) In thinking about war, terrorism, and social movements, we have decided that some core questions in thinking about rhetoric and violence are the following:
1) In a society marked by and defined in and through violence of various kinds, is violence effective and legitimate in response to system violence?
2) What are the constitutive/symbolic/identity-forming and instrumental/practical/material uses of violence on the part of nations, governments, individuals, and movements?
3) In capitalist society, who has the prerogative of violence and whose violence is deemed a threat? How does a group in society render its violence legitimate? In other words, whose violence is just warfare and whose is terrorism?
4) Is there such a thing as “terrorism” or is it just the label our rulers apply to the violence of those deemed a threat?
5) What role do mass media and political discourse play in framing violence differentially depending on the social actor(s) in question?
6) Does rhetoric’s traditional embrace of symbolic efficacy in a democratic context blind us to the undemocratic and coercive nature of our society as context; does it literally and figuratively “disarm” us in thinking about rhetoric, violence, and social movements?
7) Does the ethos of nonviolence in movements for social change literally and figuratively disarm us as agents of change? Is it naïve about the exercise of power?
8. What can we see if we look at situations of violent conflict with these questions in mind?Antonio Gramsci called our attention to how ruling classes obtain the cooperation of their subjects through persuasion when possible and by coercion if necessary. In the Prison Notebooks, Gramsci explains the dual characteristics of power: “They are the levels of force and of consent, authority and hegemony, violence and civilization . . . [I]t may happen as in human life, that the more an individual is compelled to defend his own immediate physical existence, the more will he uphold and identify with the highest values of civilisation and of humanity, in all their complexity.” Likewise, he writes, “When the pressure of coercion is exercised over the whole complex of society (and this has taken place in particular since the fall of slavery and the coming of Christianity) puritan ideologies develop which give an external form of persuasion and consent to the intrinsic use of force.”
The discourse of the “clash of civilizations” is an ideology that seemingly wins public consent to the use of force. Indeed, an irony of the discourses of war and terrorism is that the peaceful consent of a population is often won through the violence of the nation state enacted not on its own people, but on others in the name of “civilization.” Kenneth Burke likewise recognized how the construction of identity and identification rests upon the process of scapegoating of an externalized Other.
But there is more to the story than its symbolic dimensions. Wars are fought not only to reinforce national commitment and identification but also to win and sustain economic and geopolitical hegemony over the world’s people. The struggle for hegemony is not one-sided, however. The people tend to resist, enacting their own dialectic between persuasion and violence, national identity and material power.
Seen as a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East, the conflict between Israel (operating in its own interests and by proxy in the interests of U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich region) and Lebanon (currently home for thousands of displaced Palestinians and of Hezbollah and other radical resistance organizations), the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers (not civilians) by Hezbollah inside Israel’s claimed territory was not, by any standard definition, an act of terrorism. Writing in The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh documents how Israel had been looking for a pretext for invading Lebanon well before the July 12 kidnappings, which Israel regarded as an opportune provocation. After Israel invaded Lebanon, Hezbollah’s responses, which involved shooting missiles into Israel, were no more terrorist or targeted at civilians than Israel’s incursion and prior acts of war against Palestinians and its neighboring countries.
If terrorism is defined as a strategy of coercion that intentionally targets and threatens civilians with random and unpredictable violence, any number of acts considered to be warfare as usual among powerful nations—the carpet bombing of Dresden during World War II, Sherman’s march to the sea, the U.S. siege of Fallujah, the My Lai massacre, the Haditha massacre, and many more—should be designated as terrorism. Likewise, the appropriation of Palestinian land and displacement of many thousands of Palestinians from their home by force is as much (and more powerful) a campaign against civilians as the activities of Hamas or other militant Palestinian organization against Israel and Israelis.
So we must ask the questions, by what rhetorical and political process does one person’s violence become legitimate; by what rhetorical and political process does one group get to define another’s violence not as legitimate warfare or resistance but as terrorism? The mass media have a lot to do with it. We know from Todd Gitlin and others that resistance is often coded in commercial news media as violent even when it is not violent; and when resistance does employ coercive tactics, those means are discredited as irrational threats by prevailing media frames. (We see this pattern in media coverage of global justice protesters in Seattle an similarly in mainstream coverage of the activities of the Black Panther Party.) But this insight begs the more basic observation that those with more power get to define their own violence as the only legitimate use of force. In this sense, the nation state is a category of identification mainly concerned with winning a population within a particular border to the legitimacy of its government’s use of force in domestic and international settings. This consent is manufactured through the constitution of a violent, irrational, external threat against whom force becomes justified and righteous.
It is true that Hamas and Hezbollah also constitute the identities of their followers by setting forward a rhetorical construction of an external threat in the shape of Israel or the United States. We have to recognize, however, that when one is Palestinian (or Iraqi, or Afghan), the United States and Israel actually pose and have acted as real, violent, overpowering threats, when the weaker forces of the de-territorialized do not pose a similar degree of threat to stronger nations. Thus we need a materialist standard for evaluating claims as to the legitimacy of the rhetoric of self-defense.
In this context it is useful to define what we call “terrorism” as the desperate tactics of an oppressed people who have been denied the right to their own army, or, in other words, “asymmetrical warfare.” All warfare and organized violence are terrifying. Calling only one side’s violence “terrorism” enables the powerful to discredit resistance as illegitimate, irrational, and ineffective (as in “we will not bargain with terrorists”). It is easy enough to see through these rhetorical maneuvers, however: For the population of Lebanon, Hezbollah was and remains a legitimate representative of the people (stats here). As historian John Van Camp explains, “Hezbollah is viewed as a legitimate national resistance organization, among Shia and non-Shia, throughout much of Lebanese society. Even before this summer’s war, a 2005 Center for Strategic Studies survey found that three-quarters of Lebanese Christians–the traditional base of the right–identified Hezbollah as a legitimate group in challenging Israeli aggression.”
The label “terrorism” whips up an image of an enemy without legitimate grievance engaged in senseless violence. But for a people stripped of territory and rights and subjected to daily exclusions and violence, but without the real forces to respond in kind, the strategies of asymmetrical warfare are rational. And the rebuff of Hezbollah in ejecting Israel from Lebanon (for the second time since 2002) pretty well demonstrates that what we call terrorism actually works. The intifada (both times) brought Israel to the negotiating table and forced even Ariel Sharon, the butcher of Hebron, to pull back Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories. (In the context of U.S. social movements, Herbert Haines has observed that the militant flank of any social movement tends to prompt the powerful to negotiate with more moderate forces, leading to reforms.)
As Ahmad Khalidi wrote last July in The Guardian,
Much has been made in recent days – at the G8 summit and elsewhere – of Israel’s right to retaliate against the capture of its soldiers, or attacks on its troops on its own sovereign territory. Some, such as those in the US administration, seem to believe that Israel has an unqualified licence to hit back at its enemies no matter what the cost. And even those willing to recognise that there may be a problem tend to couch it in terms of Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” rather than its basic right to take military action.
But what is at stake here is not proportionality or the issue of self-defence, but symmetry and equivalence. Israel is staking a claim to the exclusive use of force as an instrument of policy and punishment, and is seeking to deny any opposing state or non-state actor a similar right. It is also largely succeeding in portraying its own “right to self-defence” as beyond question, while denying anyone else the same. And the international community is effectively endorsing Israel’s stance on both counts.
From an Arab point of view this cannot be right. There is no reason in the world why Israel should be able to enter Arab sovereign soil to occupy, destroy, kidnap and eliminate its perceived foes – repeatedly, with impunity and without restraint – while the Arab side cannot do the same.
One can point out the basic unfairness of this position, but the question remains as to what can the oppressed can do if their voices don’t count and their violence is discredited. I cannot think of a single episode in world history in which a major rebalancing of social power occurred without the use of coercive—if not violent—tactics by the forces of agitation. Iran President Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric (notoriously mistranslated so that “an end to the Israeli occupation” becomes “Israel wiped off the map”), along with the efforts of Hezbollah, Hamas, and perhaps even Al Qaeda, suggests that articulating the logic of localized resistance is an effective strategy in response to colonialism, occupation, and apartheid. The nationalism of the oppressed, as Lenin explained, is a different thing from the nationalism of the oppressor.
Deepa Kumar points out in an essay on the war in Lebanon how the Western media actually acknowledged the asymmetrical violence and power between Israel and Hezbollah. She cites an example from Newsweek of an interview with its Middle East correspondent:
KURTZ: Chris Dickey in Rome, if the dominant view in the Arab media is that Lebanon is a victimized population and Israel is the aggressor and all of that, would you say that the — the main picture provided by western media is, at the very least, much more sympathetic to Israel?
DICKEY: . . . [L]et’s not forget the difference in scale here. We’re talking of hundreds of rockets dropping at random in Northern Israel. We’re talking about 1,800 targets being hit by the Israeli air force and 3,600 bombing sorties, many with 500-pound bombs. Some with 5,000-pound bombs.
That’s an enormous amount of firepower. It’s a lot more accurate. These are smart munitions made by the United States of America in many cases.
Kumar also notes that when the left joins in the anti-terrorist chorus, its terms are often complicit with Islamophobia, a discourse of vilification that renders Muslims and Islam as irrational and terrifying in itself, its adherents blind followers of a sectarian and violent faith. She writes, “The wholesale demonization of Arabs and Muslims is racist and unacceptable, it serves to bolster US foreign policy goals in the Middle East, and giving even an inch to Islamophobia divides us and weakens our ability to build an effective opposition to the war in Iraq and the potential war on Iran.”
If we fail to consider these questions in material context—in terms of the struggle for hegemony and control over the world’s people and resources, we risk telling people who daily are the victims of system violence that they cannot or should not fight back. We ought to think twice before embracing a critique of radical Islam as irrational and illegitimate as a response to oppression. We should consider whether a liberal pacifist stance on geopolitical struggle disarms the oppressed.