On Terror and Terrorism

Many people believe that "terror" is a kind of fear. Its origins are far stranger.

Anyone with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan performing what we called COIN or counter-insurgency understands that violence can be counterproductive when it comes to building confidence with a civilian population. It was one of the many paradoxes of that strange and unmilitary mission in which the U.S. was engaged between 2001-2021: the enemy attacks you from a village or town, you retaliate, and that retaliation almost always make things worse.

During and after my deployments to Afghanistan I thought a lot about that paradox, and other similar paradoxes. I became deeply interested in how we think about war — what goes into it — and its likely outputs. Like many other people who’ve considered the question, I concluded after much consideration that war is a great evil, and rarely necessary. Where and when it can be avoided, it should be, at all costs.

Israel’s goal of bringing Hamas to justice — as clear and unambiguously good a goal as I’ve seen in my lifetime — will almost certainly run afoul of innocent Palestinian civilians should a ground invasion of Gaza commence, and in so doing perpetuate and inflame the conflict currently consuming the area. At the same time, Israelis worry that to do nothing will signal weakness to neighbors who have in the very recent past attempted to invade and destroy Israel not once, not twice, but three times (1948, 1967, and 1973) — four, if one counts the recent Hamas raid.

This threat of total destruction is what many Jewish people around the world fear, quite justifiably, after centuries of oppression and the Holocaust, and doubly so with anti-semitism on the rise. Israel, a nation-state, is the bulwark against that threat; a place where Jewish people have (for the first time in millennia) a place where they can advocate for themselves on equal terms with other countries, a country that can stand for their rights. Hamas’s attack on Israel left over a thousand Jewish people dead, and enjoyed a success few would have thought possible before it happened — this, at the very moment that Israel hoped to strike historic agreements with neighbors from a position of strength. That fearsome reputation, built up over decades, has been called into question. And without it, Israel and its supporters elsewhere in the world are left wondering whether peace in the region can ever be possible on fair terms.


On Terror and Terrorism

Many people believe that "terror" is a kind of fear. Its origins are far stranger.

I hope that readers will indulge me a think-piece more similar to essays I’ve written in the past for The New Republic. The Hamas raid on Israel is widely described as “terrorism,” and I wanted to take a moment to explain some of the thinking I’ve seen and read around that term, to better understand what it means, and perhaps understand what Hamas hoped to accomplish with the act, assuming that they were not simply hoping for their own destruction (as will likely be their fate, and should be).

What is the goal of terrorism? To create fear as a first order effect, and, as a consequence of that fear, to reduce confidence in a government’s ability to protect its citizens. As the most essential task of a government is to provide security, attacking that capability is the very best way to undermine its credibility and legitimacy. A government that cannot secure the safety of its citizens cannot, on a certain level, be competent.

While it’s not clear to me that many people understand this about terrorism, its first order effect — fear — is pretty obvious from the word’s root, “terror.” Terror, as most — all? — English speakers know, is synonymous with fear. If people were to point to a difference between fear and terror, it would likely be a question of degree. Terror, to be precise, is a particularly intense form of fear.

Looking at the word’s origins, however, one quickly sees that the origin of this concept of terror is not just “powerful fear,” but something qualitatively different. People experience fear for reasons that are usually quite healthy. From a biological perspective, fear serves to keep a person alive and healthy. A bad experience in childhood or (from the perspective of people reading this post) in war can lead to a person suffering from fear or anxiety in certain situations where fear is not warranted — this is not evidence that fear is bad, only that it can be misplaced. Fear, on its own, is natural, and useful.

Terror, on the other hand, is not a natural emotion — it is first described by the ancient Greeks as the mortal response to encountering a charioteer of Ares, the Greek god of War. In other words, terror is of an entirely different order than natural fear — terror is the recognition of divinity, and all that recognition entails — one’s own mortality, the certainty of death, existential crisis. Terror calls into question not only the legitimacy of a government, or a military, but exposes as folly and makes mockery of any human endeavor. Imagine standing in a courtroom, accused of some great crime, and then the walls of that courtroom falling away to reveal an auditorium filled with gods or angels, judging the concept of earthly justice. This is the origin of terror.

Why has terror come to be synonymous with “fear,” and “horror” (horror being a kind of powerful revulsion or disgust, and as different conceptually from terror as terror is from fear)? Perhaps for the same reason that “awe-full” has, in its present form (awful), come to mean something very bad and objectionable, rather than its original sense of appropriate reverence in the presence of God. Humans, it seems, don’t appreciate concepts that subordinate them to a greater power, even when that subordination is appropriate. Perhaps too the industrial era and the subsequent creation of a politics of and for the masses has worked to subvert “terror” and “awe.” Having killed God, per Nietzsche, we have endeavored to replace God with other structures and concepts… but once God is gone, awe and terror must change their meanings, too. Communion with divinity while praying in a cathedral or in some sacred holy space hits differently at an annual dinner for the Democratic Party.

And yet, an echo of that original meaning of terror remains. To describe oneself as “terrified” rather than “afraid” or “scared” is to put an exclamation point on a story; presumably, one experiences terror (in its sense of extreme fear) a handful of times in one’s life. Fear, on the other hand, is something that likely brushes up against a person monthly, or certainly yearly. To feel terror is to brush against some remarkable event or moment.

U.S. soldiers and IDF train in 2014 for urban combat. Photo via DVIDS, by Staff Sgt. Lukas Atwell.

This can also be seen in terror’s absence where one would expect to meet it; war and nature are full of stories where a person, confronted by some great misfortune such as a shark or bear or extreme weather — a life-or-death situation — experiences neither fear nor terror, but unexpected calm. Why should this be? Again, because fear is natural — it helps guide one away from threatening situations. At the moment of crisis, fear becomes utterly useless, and instead one is able to access all of one’s strength and intelligence to survive.

To put it another way, there isn’t a sliding scale that leads from fear to terror as a tiger approaches one’s position; fear is what might help one to avoid a tiger entirely, replaced in the unfortunate case that one cannot escape the beast with the calm and strength one needs to against all odds survive rather than be eaten. Terror doesn’t factor into it at all; terror is the feeling one might have in contemplating the Tiger-god or the god of beasts in a temple dedicated to the same.

Returning to the idea of terrorism: Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda hoped (in destroying the Twin Towers) to pull the United States into another Vietnam-style conflict that would ruin the U.S. economy, reduce confidence in government, and demoralize U.S. citizens. Bin Laden certainly achieved some of those goals. Looking back on the 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s difficult to conclude that in carrying those out we covered ourselves in glory. The rest of the world may or may not fear the U.S., but it’s difficult to claim looking at the behavior of Russia, China, or Iran that the U.S. is well respected.

The terror that people feel in the face of an effective attack by terrorists goes beyond simple fright. Terrorism is not just crime; it invokes the power of the gods, and is capable of damaging nations and changing the course of history. Perhaps this is why the nation of Israel feels that it must invade Gaza, in spite of substantial global opposition, and America’s own fumbled attempts to respond effectively to 9/11. Whether that ground invasion of Gaza is correct or not — whether Israel goes forward with it or not — is ultimately up to them. We cannot know the outcome of that action. We can, however, understand that terror is different from and greater than fear.


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Wasn’t sure where the Duffel Blog was going with this but figured it out eventually.