“Three Kinds of Terrorist”
(Part II of Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice)
by Michael Vlahos
“Three Kinds of Terrorist” appears below.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Vlahos is the author of Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.

FIGHTING IDENTITY: Sacred War and World Change

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Heretic, Apostate, Stranger

The militant version of Americanism denominates three kinds of terrorist. The first is the terrorist “against the body,” or the heretic. The distinguishing mark of the heretic is that he claims to be a righteous voice, a speaker of Truth, unafraid. Society may condemn and punish the heretic, yet if he recants there is hope for purification and return to the body politic. After punishment the heretic might be rehabilitated, or—if he has improved the American idea—even enshrined.

The second kind of terrorist is the apostate. In stark contrast to the heretic, the apostate has renounced the American idea wholesale and seeks its overthrow. Hence the apostate is Evil’s minion, serving a dark faith that seeks America’s corruption. The apostate has “left the body.”

The third type of terrorist is the stranger, alien to the sacred body (literally “not of the body”) yet nonetheless still able to manifest itself from within—as the Evil One who may even now be among us. If he is among us then he is seeking out apostates to recruit; even if America is strong without, it might still be brought down from within.

The belief that the American idea will remake the world and yet at the same time is so fragile that a few individuals can put it at risk dictates that nonviolent groups can be branded as “terrorist,” because of the subversive power they wield.

Ancient Romans, too, were seized with the fear of an idea that could bring down Romanitas. The greatest “terrorist” campaign of antiquity was delivered sub-rosa—Christianity’s one-by-one conversion of Romans. Each conversion represented a blow to Romanitas, to its authority, legitimacy, and its role as interlocutor of sacred identity.

“We have the alternative, and true, path to the sacred,” said Christians, modestly, without violence. The Roman state responded with extreme prejudice. Yet proscription through martyrdom failed. Moreover, this “counterterrorism” campaign—rooting out the threat—only reinforced the very centuries-long martyrdom that brought down the Roman state.

Christians threatened all that the Roman civil religion held to be correct and true (pietas). According to Robert Louis Wilken, when Romans branded the Christian vision as superstitio it was not a matter of simple bias or the result of ignorance; it expresses a distinct religious sensibility. When Tacitus wrote that Christianity was the “enemy of mankind,” he did not mean that he did not like Christians and found them a nuisance...but that they were an affront to his social and religious world.

Normative existential threat can be shown through a simple story. A Roman aristocrat is fingered as a closet Christian. He is asked (politely of course, given his station) to do the right thing, to crumble laurel leaves over the embered brazier before the God Augustus’ bust.

Equally polite, he replies, No. Brought to trial, this patrician accepts the reality of death with such dignity and equanimity that the audience, gathered to affirm the majesty of Romanitas, starts whispering, “He is more like the mythic Romans of old than our own, debased elite. He is a true Roman.” So the Church subverted and took over the Roman state.

Why are terrorists not branded simply as criminal—on legal foundations customarily exercised by the state? We continually emphasize the inhuman nature of terrorist acts, yet does inhumanity not also attain for modern serial killers and mass murderers?

Yet we can go further: Terrorism is most notably linked to outsider groups of individuals—not to great criminal syndicates, nor to great communities of insurgency, and certainly not to rebel movements capable of plunging society into civil war. The pathetic physical state of “terrorism” leads to the question of its most remarkable capacity to instill fear in the collective heart of America.

Answers lie in our society’s cultural framing. The United States has defined—at this substrate of its ethos — three kinds of terrorism.  The first is the terrorist “of the body.” If they are of the body they are heretics. The distinguishing mark of the heretic is that of righteous rule-breaker. Society may condemn and punish the Heretic, yet if he recants there is hopefully there is hope for purification and return to the body. After punishment the heretic might be rehabilitated, or if he has led the American idea to a better place, even enshrined.

In dark contrast, the apostate has renounced the American idea wholesale, and seeks its overthrow. Hence the apostate is Evil’s conversion, serving a dark faith seeking America’s destruction. The apostate has left the body, never to return even in death—which shall be righteously imposed.

Terrorists not of the body then they must alien. They are The Stranger: The Evil One who can even now be among us. If he is among us, then he is seeking out apostates to recruit, so that even if America is strong without it can still be brought down from within.

This bonding of threat and fear — of an American idea able to remake the world and yet at the same time so fragile that a few individuals can put it at risk—also means that non-violent groups can also be branded as terrorist, because of the subversive power they wield.

20th Century American Terrorism


Converts to the dark new competing faiths of Modernity—Nazism and Soviet Communism—were 20th century America’s most dreaded apostates. How quickly Bolshevism became a mortal threat to American exceptionalism! Apostates are more deeply infected than Heretics: Spreading their disease is not simply deviltry but the agency of the Devil. They are the bitten ones.

Hence American apostates in the 20th century have their punishment delivered as exorcism: “The Unfriendly Ten” for example (including great novelists and screenwriters like Dalton Trumbo) were brought before the House on Un-American Activities and publicly exorcised in protracted inquisitional rituals of casting-out and cleansing. They became, in Orwell’s chilling lexicon: Unpersons. Those who recanted before camera, like Whittaker Chambers, were embraced, but only if they spent the rest of their lives forever re-enacting their existential, almost-requited acts of contrition.

The Other

But it was The Commies who were really behind it all, the dreaded Other who make the HUAC a necessity—as a salvational, exorcising element of American Life. The “long, twilight struggle” against Soviet communism has inked and scarred Americans with an indelible tattoo—but in its heyday literally redefined American exceptionalism itself. In the fullness of History, it may have transformed us forever.

The Cold War conditioned Americans to long-term, institutionalized struggle against an ideological Dark Lord. Naturally, the Soviet dark force required not simply the light energy of an America good and true, but also our own institutionalized forces to fight and counter evil every day. The Cold War was not in its fullest sense a struggle against terrorism. Yet 40 years of national vigilance, taking a militant stand, created a comfortable national framework for dealing with existential threats.

Think about it: Whereas with FDR (and Wilson and Lincoln before) America had blown the Ram’s Horn of Deliverance and Redemption for all humanity, now there were two worlds, Manichaean: Us—the U.S.A.—versus the Demiurge—the U.S.S.R. Free World against the Slave, Love versus Hate, Peace versus War. Never was a single literary testament so powerful, and so spot-on, as George Orwell’s 1984. In the 1950s and 1960s we were becoming OceaniaWould Americans and Soviets in the end offer the same redemption?And we could not even see it.

Gratefully, thankfully, it could not last. American Manichaeanism ebbed and oozed away and slowly disbanded. But it left a foundation for the future: Of an American Exceptionalism rooted not in the promise of redemption but rather in the promise of retributive justice. Of an America sworn and steeled to righteous punishment of the dark side, rather than an America that fights only to save, so that all people might be free.

The Soviet-ChiCom Other—in its 1950s and 1960s climax of faith—embedded within us a Manichaean cast to American Exceptionalism. This did not yet overturn the original heart of American Exceptionalism. We used to talk about how these Cold War times of tribulation were what must inevitably precede the Millennium. We could, we told ourselves, eventually prevail over Soviet and Chinese Communism, and reunite the world in a brotherhood of freedom and democracy—as God had planned. Yes, someday. 

Retributive justice however is an assault on American Exceptionalism, coming like an undetected comet to earth from some rogue orbital path. Retributive justice represents the fallback for the failure to bring redemption when we might have done so—meaning, failure of us Americans as the agents of divine plan to fulfill it when we might have.

Arguable it is one thing to have failed to do so when the world (and the U.S.) was patently unready—in 1919—or to do so when there were secret opponents who would do anything to stop it—Stalin after 1945. Yet it is quite another to have failed twice when the stars were in alignment and we were unopposed and on top: After 1991, when the world was our oyster, and after 2001, when another oyster magically appeared.

In the auspicious year 2013 it is difficult to identify any grand outcome the world efforts of two eight-year administrations (of both religious sects)—to fulfill God’s plan—when they clearly had the power to do so, as endlessly declared in their own political rhetoric.

Failure is critical here. It would be one thing if Americans simply threw up their hands and said: “We are a normal country! We are just another nation, and nations have interests. Get over it: We are just here, like everybody else, for ourselves (and maybe, if we have 5% to spare, and larger human agenda). But only 5%: Tops!”

But no American would ever say this (except for 281 certified “realists”).  In the last presidential election cycle, all the candidates, from both sects, relentlessly chatted-up “American Exceptionalism” — and yes, they were all enthusiastic supporters. But their narrative of exceptionalism was profoundly transfigured from the hagiographic rhetoric of Lincoln-Wilson-FDR (even Reagan—who after all pumped Gorbachev for a 0-nuclear world).

After 12 years of fighting the savage heathen—the ultimate Other that Muslim fighters represent in the American imagination—the nation itself has collectively (if also in its collective unconscious) come to a new understanding, verging on a new vision, of American Exceptionalism.

It goes like this: “Kill the Bad Guys. Kill them all. Just kill them. It is them or us. Democrat or Republican, we feel the same way. This is what America is all about. It is a dark world out there. Let’s get them before they get us. [To soldiers:] You fight for our freedom. You sacrifice so that what is out there cannot get here.”

Some of America’s characterization of the Other goes back to the well of the Cold War, the Soviets, and the 1950. The Soviet-ChiCom-Manichaean contribution was to prepare and condition the nation to a future of Manichaean struggle—perpetual and forever—and thus pave the way for a baseline vision of Us versus Them, and a Them that must be killed.

But there is also a yet-deeper source in national ethos, the deepest well from which we replenish our investment today in retributive justice.