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What Is Terrorism?

July 30, 2015

Clearly we can’t have a meaningful novel about the psychopathology of American democracy if it doesn’t include some pages about terrorism, past and present; but I’m thinking that the way we have been using the term since 2001 has muddled people’s thinking so much that we should begin by defining it.

I think we can use the term most helpfully if we mean: an act that is intended and designed for the purpose of causing a person or people to feel so much fear that they are mentally/emotionally (sometimes even physically) paralyzed, with the result that they can easily be controlled, thus making it easy for the terrorist to serve his (rarely her) interests against them.

A concrete example: In the ‘30s the Luftwaffe put fins on the wings of its Stuka dive bombers, to be used in support of the fascist forces in Spain, for the purpose of making a screeching sound, when diving, that would scare people half to death, immobilizing and demoralizing them, making them less able to resist the fascist attacks (and takeover of their country).

Another: lynchings of black men, including horrific mental and physical torture of the victim, done by night riders, with the purpose of keeping the local black population too scared to assert themselves.

Today: murders of black Americans by white police. (Or the flying of the Confederate battle flag—and on the lawn of kid’s birthday party, no less; but the parents and friends refused to cower.)

Again:  the terrorist uses violence in a way that is calculated to severely reduce the victim’s ability to resist the terrorist, because the victim is gripped by deep and pervasive fear.

The terrorist can be, for instance, a single person (there’s always a person who triggers the violence), a gang, vigilantes, a corporation, a formal or informal group within a governmental agency, a head of government.

In sum, the current epidemic of violence by American police against minority citizens is not just racism, it is State Terrorism (or at the least, terrorism by local governments). That’s not a metaphor, it’s an objective statement of fact.   Their aim is to perpetuate control and oppression by striking fear into the hearts of minority citizens, and especially black women, who are supposed to continue being, to use Zora Neale Hurston’s metaphor, “the world’s mules” (Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Well, mules of the world, godamn unite. You got nothing to lose but your masters. You’re already losing your lives, and your children’s lives. And the lives of men who love you.

So that gets this episode started; on later pages I’ll narrate some more examples from American history, and then look at them with an eye to the psychopathology of our democracy. Meanwhile, I’m thinking (and cursing) silently.

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