Terrorism is powerful because it creates the fear that our way of life—our very identity—is weak, corrupt, and about to fall. Worse still, aggressive strikes back often reinforce the terrorist argument, seeming to confirm the terrorist’s central claim.
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences.
Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.
Terrorism shares much with large-scale conflicts that seek to overturn an established order, like war and revolution. But because terrorism operates primarily at the level of collective belief, its campaigns can be waged successfully on a much smaller scale, at the level of ritual and symbolic action—at least initially. Many terrorist campaigns develop later into full wars and revolutions.
What makes ritual and symbolic action, however deadly, so effective? How do the actions of a few create existential fear throughout a nation?
What makes terrorism so powerful is that it leverages the most powerful of human actions: The sacrifice. For thousands of years, human sacrifice has represented a sacred rite, with many layers of explicit ritual and symbol—in which our most precious loss transforms into our most precious gift. Critical to all human society is the need for shared belief and belonging. Think of the sacrifice—enacted and memorialized—as the mortar of our collective belief and belonging.
Those who sacrifice themselves do so in the hope of freeing or saving others. We know such acts have power because they can change the world. The public immolation of Buddhist monks in Saigon brought down the Diem regime and precipitated the Vietnam War—and the subsequent revolutionary metamorphosis of Vietnam itself. The immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunis literally opened the floodgates of the Arab Spring. Every nation and free community has its martyrs—heroes and saints.
But we do not call these blessed martyrs, terrorists—although the regimes they doomed often did. The Romans saw early Christians, no matter how non-violent, as terrorists, because they threatened to overturn Romanitas, the established order.
In contrast, however, those who set about to sacrifice both themselves and others occupy a different niche of human power. If the freeing or saving of others simply cannot be realized through the example and model of martyrdom—then the agency of righteous change must pursue a dual path of sacrificial death—one in which our own are martyred, and another in which The Other is ritually slaughtered—and here the sacrificial duality represents a complex relationship.
Dual sacrifice terrorism is deeply related to war—most especially in how humans invest sacrifice with sacred meanings. Both war and “terrorism”—whatever the stated goals—must also meet ritual and symbolic benchmarks of attainment for the societies they serve to see these blood enterprises as successful. Sacrificial killing in itself represents the passage of transformation: The violent overthrow of an established order and the way of life it sustains.
This is not how Americans think about war and terrorism. To Americans, war is a material enterprise, in which physical instruments dominate both action and outcome. We assume that we create symbols to explain the physical action—for example, propaganda films like Why We Fight.
The exact opposite is true. We create instruments and action to support and make real the ritual and symbolic theater. A people realize a collective emotional experience, and this new realization becomes the change. Weapons and battle—or IEDs and explosive belts—are simply the instrument and vehicle of realization.
What they make possible is the sacrifice—both of our own, and of The Other. Truth is that sacrifice is the central purpose of war (and terrorism)—and physical instrumentality is the means to its end. The purpose of war and terrorism is to create a ritual and symbolic sacrificial theater, in which the very drama and intensity of the collective, lived experience fundamentally alter the human landscape. The strongest, surest way to realize such a shift is through mass, orchestrated, human sacrifice.
Americans cannot see this, because like almost all other societies, we see in war what we want to see. We do not see, and yet we do. Every American war movie ever made celebrates the passion of sacrifice and the ritual killing of the enemy. Moreover, these films themselves are designed for the viewer to absorb the ritual passionately. Fulfilling sacrifice is the payoff in war, and in collective memory thereafter—and is intended, like church liturgy, to be celebrated forever.
Americans have no emotional distance when it comes to war. Hence, when an enemy robs us of fulfillment in war’s sacrifice—theirs and ours—they steal also our inner (unspoken) vision of victory. America’s failures in every war we have fought since 1945 have centered on our failure to orchestrate the sacrifice. Last Man Standing and American Sniper are revealing film testaments to a long national frustration.
Clausewitz said, “Strategy is the use of the engagement for the purposes of the war.” As a good 18th century man, he could not have said, “strategy is the use of sacrifice for the purposes of the war.” With terrorism, there is no escaping this truth.
Terrorism is specifically tuned to rob the target enemy of any control over the sacrifice, and to drive its ownership ever deeper into insurgent control. Properly executed, terrorism triggers counterproductive regime responses. A strong terror strategy engenders counter-terrorism-insurgency actions that 1-further delegitimate the regime, 2-further weaken the people’s bond of trust, and 3-foreclose the positive orchestration of sacrifice by the regime.
This explains the apparently extravagant response of France to the Charlie Hebdo attacks—8% of the entire nation marching down the streets of Paris—because they knew that the very idea of the nation was under threat, and so France countered ritual and symbol with a more powerful rite of the nation.
Americans have not found their strategic voice on terrorism because we have not as a nation come to understand the central role of the sacrifice in human conflict. We are so spooked by terrorism that we require the language we use to describe it to reassure us. Any and every thought we have on the subject must somehow serve to diminish the threat, make it small and solvable, or at least make sure it is very far away.
Hence it is beyond American analysis to see the emotional power of “terrorist” sacrifice—say, in the Sunni Muslim world—because we must always portray the narrative of sacrifice as pathetic, deviant, and evil. Yet if the exact opposite is true, we cannot say that.
The best way to understand terrorist motivation, strategy, and purpose is to lay out the central role of the sacrifice in human conflict.