By Caleb Newton
Can a state commit an act of terrorism, and does it matter outside of theory? The question, given occasion by the Islamic State (IS), looms large over the international community. For example, if IS is a “state” then it cannot, according to most definitions of terrorism, commit a terrorist act. Still, IS is a product of Islamic terrorism through and through; I do not imagine that many would dispute that claim. If the international community, though, takes it upon itself to define what constitutes a state, then it is engaging in dangerous power centralization.
As one can see from the problem outlined above, there is a major need for a systematic legal definition of terrorism. An inability to prosecute terrorists, who according to my definition willfully harm civilians in the absence of war, is a terrible problem. Such a legal tying of hands allows for relative freedom from consequences for the perpetrator. Traditionally, state entities that commit atrocities against civilians have been free from terrorist designation. The most effective path would be to abandon theories restricting terrorism to non-state actors, and instead to rearrange our understanding of states towards a person-centric understanding, thereby allowing the notion that states, by definition, commit terrorism and, in an important application, allowing for a clear and unified system of prosecution.
Here, I would like to highlight an issue that is important for our discussion about terrorism: The state is, technically, a figure of imagination. At International Roundtables, one does not find USA, Russia, and China sitting around a table. Instead, Ambassadors, Representatives - people, in short - from each of the respective countries are present at the figurative table. My contention, then, is that instead of people being instruments of states, states are instruments of people. The world’s primary actors are people, persons, the inhabitants of the world, not states.
Historically speaking, the modern definition and understanding of a state, a nation-state, goes back only to the 1600s and the founding of the Netherlands from the midst of the Spanish Empire. Although there were organized governments before that time, the modern insistence on the societal, anti-personal level, is precisely that - modern. The transition into the era of the primacy of the macro level of society, as opposed to the micro level of the person, is the hallmark change of the era of the nation state (i.e. all of a sudden the entire world became fixated on societal betterment and blind nationalism). The state became a living and breathing entity on its own. The macro level as the theoretical predominance in power of the state is quite dangerous since it shuts out any importance, or at least any predominance, to the level of the individual human being, allowing atrocities like terrorism to unfold.
Since the person is the true primary actor in the world system and states are “new,” there is little difference in theory between the actions of a lone wolf terrorist committing an attack against civilians and of an established entity, like the Syrian regime or the Islamic State, committing a reasonably similar act. The acts are the same in that they are both committed by the same entity - the person – and perpetrated against the same target – civilians. Although the person is operated upon by social forces, like trust and incentive, nevertheless he - or she - is still the one and only primary actor of operation.
Therefore, since there is little fundamental difference between the acts committed by an individual person and the acts committed by a person operating within the social construct of a state, the two acts should be legally recognized as the same. People operating as the leaders of societies should be held accountable for atrocities with the same fervor as a domestic terrorist in any Western country. In conclusion, yes, a state can “commit a terrorist act,” through the hands of a leader, and the question is incredibly important outside of theory because of the need to systematically and legally address obvious atrocities against civilians.
(Image: Minos, Judge of the Damned/Gustave Doré)
[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]