Back to the Future: A Duke historian’s take on modern terrorism

martin miller

Dr. Martin Miller, Duke University

Dr. Martin Miller is a Professor of History at Duke University. In his recent book, The Foundations of Modern Terrorism: State, Society and the Dynamics of Political Violence he examines the history of terrorism, integrating the violence of governments and insurgencies, and considers why terrorism has become such a central factor in our lives. Dr. Miller’s interests include Modern Russian history, the history of psychoanalysis in Russia, and comparative and international terrorist movements. He received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1967.

You talked about terrorism as an interaction between governments and insurgencies. How clearly defined are the actors in this interaction?

I’m trying to bring together two sides that have been treated, essentially, separately – insurgents on the one hand and the agents of the state on the other. The phenomenon that I’m dealing with here is the entanglement of the two sides. One simple way of understanding it is that if one side isn’t there, the other side goes out of business. The security agencies need to have the terrorists there to conduct their affairs, and the terrorists must have the security agencies to repress them.

Is violence against civilians an inherent part of that interaction?

I think that the groups who commit acts of violence against innocents will, in most cases, deny that that was their intention. There’s this phrase that we’ve learned to accept as normal ever since Vietnam, “collateral damage,” which is a term that is often used to describe the sort of accidents that happen because people are where they shouldn’t be or because there are moral justifications [for the violence].

The anarchist insurgents that predominated in Western Europe at the end of the 19th century made the point to target the parts of privileged bourgeois civilian society – who most of us would consider to be innocents in that they have no role to play in the problem – because their wealth was perceived to have been gained by exploiting the impoverished majority. There are lots of reasons that insurgents have used to interpret the notion of who is an innocent and who isn’t, in ways that diverge from mainstream norms. Governments do the same thing. I don’t think security agencies have ever intended to harm innocents, and yet that side is responsible for far more civilian casualties than the insurgents.

In your book, you make it clear that terrorism has Western origins. Terrorism originating from the Middle East has dominated the headlines in the last two decades. Will terror continue to be associated with the Middle East, or will it make a resurgence elsewhere in the world?

Well, I certainly hope not. I think that the provocations that have occurred on all sides, that draw in areas of the world that otherwise would have been separated is an important thing to consider. For example, the 1953 involvement of the United States and Britain in the removal from power of a democratically-elected prime minister in Tehran was something that meant a great deal to the people in Iran. [That] has continued all the way through the 1979 takeover of the American embassy and into our own time.

So these trends where one civilization or culture or politics becomes involved with another, for reasons that maybe entirely make sense at the time to the principals involved, have unintended consequences. Other areas of the world are getting involved, and the language that they’ll employ is not that they’re being liberated or morally uplifted but that they’re being oppressed, repressed, or occupied. The language varies from one side to the other once the deeds have been committed. So I think the danger here, if you want to talk about it in the future, for your generation, is stopping that interaction of globalized terrorisms. And I use the plural here because I think that’s what’s going on.

Is what the media calls “Islamic Terrorism” different from the terrorisms that you have studied in the past two centuries?

First, I think that even when religion seems to be the dominating motivation behind the acts of terrorism, it ends up being ultimately political. Even ISIS today, which seeks territory and state legitimacy, becomes involved with all the problems, issues, promises and aspirations that any state must be concerned about. Consider the theological regimes, whether you’re talking about a republic like Iran or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The core issues are always first and foremost political.

Now, at the same time – and here I think you’re raising an important point – there is an entirely separate discourse. One of the things I track in my book is the discourse about tyrannicide that goes back to the medieval period and all the way through to the Enlightenment into the 19th and 20th centuries. The discourse in the Islamic World goes back at least as far and in fact was separated until ties were deepened between the Western and Islamic worlds. Then they become fused, and that’s combustible and dangerous.

In other words, it’s taking the Koran as a standard as opposed to the Bible. One of the things that Protestants and Catholics did for centuries was to use the Bible as a way of exploiting how a tyrant could be removed with divine grace, which was a very difficult argument to make. And it happened with Islamic scholars – those who feel this way – who have done a similar kind of thing with passages in the Koran, interpreting them similarly.

Is it helpful for us, in formulating a counterterrorism strategy, to consider terrorist enemies as rational strategic actors with well-defined political aims?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, it’s a misunderstanding because the drama that one is involved in is combat, which is war. By taking sides and calling it counterterrorism itself, you’re engaging in the very acts that you are trying to root out, which is part of the problem and propagates the entanglement issue.

Terrorism is ultimately a statement of rational motivations with goals in mind. It’s all strategic and planned. And it’s very political. I think the whole religious phenomenon is a veil that’s put over the political – which is the core element – in the way that ideology used to be. In the 1960s and 70s, variations of Marxism were treated in the same way that variations of Jihadism are today.

You mention in your book that the failure of the republican cause in the revolutions of 1848 signified the end of an era, replacing regicide with terror as the main form of political violence. Does that signify a threshold, after which countries who have not transitioned to liberal government are condemned to suffer from terrorism?

In 1815, after the end of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, most of Europe wanted to believe that era had never happened, and they acted as though they could pretend it didn’t by setting up this so-called restoration. The revolutions of 1848 highlighted that the forces unleashed in the French revolution could not be crushed. Once the monarchical authorities retook power, they set up enormously powerful security agencies – the heirs of which we still have today.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a declaration by some of the great powers, including the United States, expressing the need to wage a War on Anarchism. Two international peace conferences were held, which involved the U.S., France, Russia, Italy, and a number of other countries. The result of the conferences was that the great powers could not cooperate. Even though they had built up these enormous security agencies, nobody was going to give up their sovereignty.

Terrorism is a contestation over national sovereignty. If a country has more or fewer regime changes, it matters. In other words, if a citizenry believes in the legitimacy of its country, there aren’t going to be regime changes all the time. And terrorism, supposedly, should be less of a threat, on both sides. There should be less need for the police to repress, and less insurgency on the part of the other side. Where regime changes take place with more regularity, the opposite is the case: legitimacy of the government is called into question constantly. That’s what the terrorisms are, in fact: an attempt to control and resolve. Unfortunately, they aren’t really dealing with the major question, which is the legitimacy of the state. There are numbers of people in government who are insecure about their own legitimacy and insurgents who wish to wrest it from their control.

The Middle East seems to be the region in the world where state legitimacy is most fragile today. Is that why the terrorisms of the last two decades have been concentrated in the region?

Well, there are a lot of forces that have been held in check, repressed, and coerced. Hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested, tortured, and executed. This is not a proper way to convince a citizenry of the legitimacy of your government. These are domestic conflicts within a single nation, where a citizenry’s basic needs are not being met. There is a social contract out there—nobody has ever signed it, but it is greatly believed in. The whole notion of a state is to protect its citizenry. Who are you protecting it from? What you don’t want to do is be in a situation where the state is actually the thing you want to protect yourself from. When that happens, then you have those situations of chaos that you’re describing.

Feature Photo: cc/(wikipedia)

Michael Frank
Michael Frank is the Editor in Chief for the Chicago Policy Review.

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