Reassessing the Impact of State Terrorism

Image by Kena Lorenzini

Mass media and politicians often describe terrorism as one of the greatest security threats to international society. These bold claims have contributed towards an unquestioned belief that terrorism has become a grave threat to our everyday lives. The sporadic and murderous nature of terrorism has been a powerful influence on public threat perception. However, the climate of fear that has resulted prevents a more nuanced evaluation of the threat of terrorism that is able to address its various dimensions, including the different types of perpetrators and geopolitical environments.

The unique ability to spread fear among populations has made terrorism an increasingly used tactic by extremist organisations looking to alter their political environments. This means that, aside from the physical damage caused by terrorism (measured by the number of casualties), the psychological impact of terrorism is a significant factor to consider when analysing the severity of the terrorist threat. This is particularly true when looking at the societal tensions and repressive government policies that may arise in the aftermath of an incident.

The events of 9/11 in the US have also played a large role in shaping the public threat perception on terrorism. 9/11 was a unique and extreme terrorist event, where Al Qaeda was responsible for thousands of casualties in a visually spectacular manner. It has caused extreme terrorist events to be seen as a regular and constant presence in everyday life. Events like 9/11 have made the public overestimate the capabilities of terrorist organisations. But it is worth noting that they resort to such tactics because they lack the capabilities and popular support to influence politics legitimately, which suggests that terrorists are much less of a threat than the public may perceive.

Those who adopt a utilitarian approach might argue that non-state terrorism does not pose a significant threat to the liberal democracies that constitute Europe and North America. In fact, (excluding 2001) fewer people have died in the US from terrorism than have drowned in bathrooms. Moreover, the probability that an individual living outside a war-zone is killed by a terrorist attack over an 80 year life span has been calculated at one in 80,000. It is as likely for somebody to be killed from the crashing of a comet or meteor.

Although mainstream policy, media, and academic circles often ignore state terrorism, it is an extremely destructive form of terrorism that deserves to be taken seriously. It is frequently used by both weak, illiberal regimes to neutralise domestic political dissidence and by powerful “liberal” democracies as a means of pursuing their national interests abroad. While terrorist organisations are responsible for, on average, a few hundred deaths per year, 300,000 people have been ‘disappeared’ by state agents in the last two decades.

There are two reasons for the relative exclusion of state terrorism in the study of terrorism. Firstly, the theoretical framework of most terrorism scholarship concurs with orthodox neorealist approaches to International Relations (IR) that largely accept a benign characterisation of Western foreign policy. Professor Ruth Blakely of the University of Kent argues that the inherent biases associated to traditional IR theory consequently affect the way scholars approach the study of terrorism.

Secondly, leading scholars and terrorism research centres, such as the RAND corporation, hold close affiliations to Western government institutions, and therefore have an incentive to define terrorism in ways that fit certain political agendas. Terrorism scholars have taken an epistemological approach to terrorism that serves state power. However, terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology, which means both ‘liberal’ and illiberal regimes can be perpetrators of state terrorism.

During the Cold War, the political systems of many developing countries experienced ideological polarisation; far-right and far-left political groups gained considerable influence and power in governments. In 1970, Chilean politician Salvador Allende became the first Marxist-Leninist to be freely elected the president of a Latin-American nation. The US saw this as an ideological threat, and worried that Communism would continue spreading throughout ‘America’s backyard’. The Nixon administration (particularly its Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger) felt threatened by the fact that this ideology came to power through the democratic process because it could not publicly justify any direct involvement in deposing a democratically legitimate regime. Naturally, the US became a tacit supporter of anti-Communist movements and resorted to covert operations throughout Latin America.

In 1973, amid rising social and political tensions, General Augusto Pinochet led a military coup that overthrew Allende’s Marxist government, and subsequently established an authoritarian, right-winged military regime that would last until 1990. During these years, the military widely adopted state terrorism as a tactic to curtail any forms of political opposition. According to the Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, “the number of direct victims of human rights violations in Chile accounts for at least 35,000 people: 28,000 tortured, 2,279 executed, and 1,248 missing.” Anybody believed to be associated to Socialism was a potential victim of state terrorism.

The use of disappearances fits particularly well with the definition of terrorism, as it creates a profoundly emotional impact on the public. According to political scientist Louise Richardson, “the critical feature of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of innocents in an effort to convey a message to another party”. In this regard, the victims of disappearances are largely symbolic, as the main objective is to frighten the public into paralysis. The element of the unknown aggravates the fears and anxieties of political opponents, while allowing the government to deny accusations.

The Chilean case highlights the effectiveness of state terrorism in silencing political opposition and illustrates the severity of the threat it poses to human security. While non-state entities use terrorism because they are incapable of executing more effective measures, states usually exercise—what Max Weber called ‘a monopoly of legitimate violence’—and therefore have superior influence, resources, and intelligence. Accordingly, state terrorism recognises no constraints to its power when dealing with individuals or groups believed to be in opposition to the government. Although non-state terrorism may negatively affect human rights, state terrorism extinguishes them.

State terrorism carried out by liberal democracies is particularly neglected from scholarly literature, even though there are several cases where such states use and sponsor terrorism abroad. The US first declared its ‘war on terrorism’ in 1981 under the Reagan Administration, and then again in 2001 when the Bush administration sought to justify the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not a coincidence that the highest levels of US state terrorism, involving the use of violent covert missions and (more recently) targeted drone strikes, occurred during these periods. In fact, the Reagan Administration was forced to rescind the original definition of terrorism introduced into the U.S. Code (its official system of laws) because, if taken literally, it classified the US as a leading terrorist state. During the Cold War, the US played a significant role in sponsoring several governments and non-state organisations that were actively using terrorist tactics.

To adequately evaluate the threat of terrorism, scholars must adopt a holistic approach that considers both state and non-state terrorism. Identifying the biases that exist in conventional terrorism literature is of utmost importance when evaluating the threat of terrorism. Although distinctly illegal and inhumane, terrorism is not as dangerous to Western civilians as is often suggested by media and politicians. The reverse is true for victims of state terrorism.

Image courtesy of Kena Lorenzini [CC by 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

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About Eduardo Gomez

Eduardo studies International Relations and Economics at the University of St Andrews. Throughout his degree, Eduardo has been involved in several research projects at the university, including undergraduate research assistantships for the School of Economics and Finance and the Global Challenges Project, organised by the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. His areas of interest consist of Latin American democracy, state terrorism, and global environmental politics.

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